Northern Ireland

Love Letters from the Front: WW1 romance dramatised by BBC Radio Ulster

Phyllis Kelly and Eric Appleby
Image caption Phyllis Kelly and Eric Appleby's love letters have been dramatised by BBC Radio Ulster in a new 137-part series

The real-life love story of an English soldier and the Irishwoman he met during World War One has been dramatised by the BBC using the love letters they exchanged while he fought for his life on the Western Front.

Eric Appleby, an engineering student from Liverpool, joined the British Army when war broke out in 1914 and was sent to pre-partition Ireland for training.

He met his sweetheart, Phyllis Kelly, at a dance in her home town of Athlone, County Westmeath, and quickly fell in love.

Their brief courtship was interrupted when Eric was sent to the Front in March 1915 to fight with the Royal Field Artillery.

Chance discovery

The couple continued their wartime romance in a series of intense love letters, which became increasingly dramatic and disturbing as Eric struggled to stay alive on the killing fields of France.

Their story - familiar to hundreds of thousands of couples separated by one of the most bloody conflicts in human history - was uncovered in Belfast by chance.

Image caption Phyllis Kelly and her siblings grew up in Athlone, where their father worked as a solicitor

A BBC producer found a collection of their love letters on a dusty shelf in the Linen Hall library and decided to bring the couple's love story back to life a century later.

"In amongst all the World War One books I came across the book 'Love Letters from the Front'," producer Ian Dougan recalls.

"I got this down and was amazed to find that it had never been read, and there were over 200 letters - beautiful letters - that I just felt had to be made into something."

'Atrocities'

The book was the work of Jean Kelly, who is married to one of Phyllis's nephews, and has now been developed into a landmark, 137-part series starting on Thursday on BBC Radio Ulster.

Two Belfast actors, Ruairi Tohill and Roisin Gallagher, were cast in the roles of Eric and Phyllis and have recorded extracts of the 200 love letters in five-minute instalments.

Image caption Actors Ruairi Tohill and Roisin Gallagher play the parts of Eric Appleby and Phyllis Kelly

The instalments will be broadcast just before noon every weekday on BBC Radio Ulster from now until October.

"The letters begin gently as love letters and then become almost a pattern of how World War One panned out," Mr Dougan says.

"From the 'love days' as they called them - boat-rides and sweetheart moments - to the atrocities that Eric witnessed."

'Slightly mad'

In one letter, the frightened soldier describes the terrible scenes unfolding around him as he writes: "Sweetheart, forgive me for not having written, it is impossible to find a moment.

"We are really in it now. There is a fearful din going on at present and shells are falling all around us.

"Quite close to our guns, about 30 yards behind, there is an enormous 17in shell hole - 40ft in diameter and 20 to 30ft deep. Really, it is appalling to look at."

Image caption Phyllis Kelly received the lapels of a dead German soldier through the post, as her shell-shocked lover's battlefield letters became more and more disturbing

Towards the end of the series, the letters are even more potent, according to the producer, as the shell-shocked soldier's correspondence transports some of the grisly reality of the battlefield back to Athlone.

"Eric's right at the front with the rats and the dead and he's gone slightly mad. He takes the gun out at night with a knife and is cutting off souvenirs off the corpses," Mr Dougan says.

"Phyllis is totally unable to conceive why through the post she's found herself receiving a dead German's lapels.

"She knows by now, because she can follow it in code, where he is and she knows he's right at the front."

The producer believes the pair's love story is symbolic of the war as a whole - from the innocence of its early days to the "midway madness" of the Somme offensive in 1916.

"Not only do you get an insight into this young couple but you also get an insight into the horrors of war."

Love Letters from the Front will be broadcast at 11:55 BST each weekday on BBC Radio Ulster from Thursday 21 April, and will be repeated each weeknight at 23:50 BST.