Letters to Lily Vale

The life and letters of Ernest Latchford MC MBE

in France, Persia, and Russia, 1916-1919

Mark Latchford

St Marys, SA: Openbook Howden, 2020

Paperback   328pp   RRP $30.00


Reviewer: Rob Ellis, October 2021


This book is, in two senses, a 'labour of love'.  The author has laboured to produce an account of his grandfather's life and career as a permanent soldier in the Australian Army in two world wars, and to tell the story of Ernest William Latchford's love for his fiancé [and later wife] Linda Marie Denhert.  He has done this well, producing the tale of a man of fairly humble origins, who served as a member of the Australian Military Forces in Australia, Britain, France, Mesopotamia, and Siberian Russia for over 30 years.

Ern Latchford was born into humble origins in Echuca in 1889, the fifth child of the 10 born to Richard George Latchford [1861-1901] and Ada Doran [1862-1938].  His youth was spent in Echuca, Deniliquin, and Launceston, largely as a ward of his uncle, William Latchford. His father, Richard, was seldom in permanent employment, and was frequently away from home, leaving his mother, Ada, the responsibility of raising her nine surviving children.

In 1906, at the age of 17, Ern moved from Launceston to Melbourne, to live with his aunt Emily Thake, and her husband and two children.  The son, Eric Thake became a lifelong friend of Ern to the time of his death.

His military career had started at sixteen years of age, as a cadet with a Militia Regiment in Launceston, and on moving to Melbourne, he transferred to the 6th Infantry Regiment. By the age of 19 he had achieved the rank of corporal, and was working at the iconic Melbourne institution, EW Cole's Book Arcade, where the sound education he had received under his uncle's guidance enabled him to indulge his passion for reading.  He was described, by his employer, as ‘attentive, punctual, honest and intelligent’, which gelled with his Commanding Officer's description of Corporal Latchford as ‘a steady, sober, reliable Non-Commissioned Officer’.

Ern's career at Cole's came to an end when he resigned to become a permanent member of the Militia's Instructional Staff.  There was a need for competent staff, at the time of semi-compulsory military training for Cadets, aged 14 to 18, and the various Citizen Military Forces units being formed across the country. Ern Latchford had found his future.

Within the Service, Ern made many friends, among them David Williamson and his wife Martha, orchardists at Doncaster, and it was through them that he met Linda Marie Denhert [1895-1976],

Like Ernest's Latchford ancestors, the Dehnert family were of Germanic origin. The Latchford had migrated from the Palantine, in the Rhineland of Germany, to Ireland, in the late 1700s, and his grandfather, also Richard George (Dick) Latchford had arrived in Australia in 1850. The Dehnert family had moved from the largely ethnic-German province of Silesia [now part of Poland] to Kent.  Linda’s grandfather, Reinhold Denhert, and his brothers migrated to Australia between 1854 and 1857.  Reinhold prospered with an orchard and vineyard in Doncaster, living to 102 years of age.

In the 1890s, Denhert purchased some 500 acres of grazing land north-west of Ballan, and set up his second son, also Reinhold [usually known as Reiny] at 'Lilydale', where he raised sheep and Hereford cattle. In 189 he married Anna Maria Hanke, and it was there that Linda was born, to be followed by 2 brothers. [The farm is still in the Dehnert family, being now managed by Reiny's grandson, Ian.]

Ern and Linda first met in 1909, but there was little regular contact until 1912, so that when Ern volunteered for service with the Australian Imperial Forces in 1914, their relationship had not progressed beyond close friendship, although by June 1916, it is apparent, from his first letters, that Ern's mind was made up – he and Linda would marry. 

This letter, the first of many, which together take up more than half the book, was written from the troopship Runic, on 20th June 1916. The last, dated 10th October 1919, was written from Irkutsk, in Russian Siberia. So, between June 1916 and October 1919, Ernest travelled to Britain, France and Belgium, Mesopotamia, Siberia, and numerous points between. 

His experiences and adventures during this near 3½ years make enthralling reading.  From August 1916, he was training, training, training – in everything an infantryman would need to know when his unit [the 38th Battalion, AIF] would be deployed to France, as part of the 3rd Division, then being formed in Britain. He was commissioned about this time, and was involved in fighting at Messines, 3rd Ypres, and other places. His expertise as a commander of a machine-gun unit earned him promotion, and a Military Cross. 

In late 1917 he was personally selected by General Sir John Monash, for a special duty – as part of 'Dunsterforce', a mission to be led by Brigadier General Lionel Dunsterville.  The main objective of this operation was to prevent the Turks allowing the Germans access to the oilfields of what is now Iraq and moving on through Persia [Iran} to threaten India.  It was also charged with protecting Christian Armenian refugees who were being forced out of Turkey and Syria, and of ensuring that the civil war between the Bolsheviks and White Russians did not spill into Iraq and Persia [now Iran].

When Dunsterforce had completed its mission, and the Great War finished in 1919, Latchford volunteered to serve as a Training Officer with the British Military Mission in Siberia, helping train White Russian troops in their war with the Bolsheviks.

After the withdrawal of this British Military Mission, Ern wound his way slowly homeward, uncertain of his future, as his AIF. Service was officially terminated on 26th April 1920.

As the Australian Army was being reconstituted on a reduced scale post-war, Ern, who wanted to be a permanent soldier, was offered only his substantive war-time rank, Warrant Officer 1st Class, although he had been promoted to captain towards the end of the war.  This demotion affected his income, and his long-awaited marriage was delayed, not taking place until 3rd May 1921. 

The happy couple settled in Randwick, not far from the School of Musketry at Randwick Barracks, where his life was typical of the peace-time soldier – training courses, both in England and Australia, and a widening of his skills in new weaponry and tactical doctrines.  He and Linda had their only child, Kevin, who later attended Duntroon and had a distinguished career with the Australian Defence Force, where he rose to the rank of major general.

In 1929, Ern. now commissioned as captain, was awarded a Long Service and Good Conduct Medal, and in 1938, an MBE. When the Second World War started, rose to become Commandant of the Army's Small Arms School, with rank of lieutenant-colonel.

In 1949 he retired from the Army, aged 60, with the rank of colonel. But, unable to sit back and do nothing, Ern became a Judge's associate at the Victoria Supreme Court, and continued being active in this role until 1961, when he finally retired to a life of gardening, bowling and being a loving grandfather to Kevin's four sons.

He died in November 1962, after an active life of 73 years, and was buried with honour at Springvale, mourned by the many members of his extended family, and by comrades from both the Australian Defence Force and colleagues from the Supreme Court.

In compiling this memoir of a competent and honourable man, his grandson, Mark, has given the reader an excellent insight into the life and times of a man of humble origins, who rose to significant rank in his chosen profession, and left an important legacy to his family, his friends, and his country.

The accounts of Ern's experiences in France, Mesopotamia and Siberia widen our knowledge of service in two world wars and illuminate two little-known sidebars of Australian Military service – small ventures which he and a very few other Australians served with distinction.

Much of the book is devoted to Ern's many love letters to Linda, and these give us a clear and vivid picture of his life, his interests, and his military service. They also tell us, clearly and unequivocally, of his love for his wife of 40 years, and of the integrity which he displayed in all things. The very clear maps of his travels across Europe, the Middle East and eastern Asia/Siberia make it easy to understand the extent of his service over three-and-a-half years.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for providing this copy for review.

Letters to Lily Vale.png