Valentine's Day 1917: A love letter on a battlefield

6 February 2017
Find out more about our community and WW1 at Beyond 1914

A century ago on Valentine's Day, 1917 - long before the instant connections promised by smartphones and social media - two sweethearts separated by war had only hand-written letters delivered by ship to share their feelings.

Long distance love: First-year engineering student Ken Saxby was fighting in Europe in the First World War while his sweetheart Dorothy Macklin was living in China.

Ken Saxby, 18, was fighting in Europe in the First World War, while his sweetheart Dorothy Macklin, 15, was living in China with her missionary parents.

The pair had only just met before Saxby headed overseas to serve in the Great War.

A first-year engineering student at Sydney, Saxby enlisted with his parents’ permission on 11 June 1915. Soon after, he found himself at Gallipoli. Like his pacifist parents, Saxby was deeply religious and chose to serve his country as a stretcher-bearer.

Macklin was born in Nanjing, China, where her parents had founded a medical mission.

However she spent some of her early years in Australia, attending Normanhurst Girls’ School in Sydney. It was during this time she met Saxby at a church group in Enmore.

On her return to China, Macklin wrote long letters to Saxby, who by this time was on the Western Front in Europe.

One was written on 15 February 1917:

“Ken, My Own Valentine,

It may seem strange for me to head my letter like this but St. Valentine’s day is a day for the giving and taking of love and as it says in the dictionary that a Valentine is a Sweetheart or lover taken on that day, then that is that you are my lover chosen not only on that day but for every day.  See?  Oh! Ken dear how I do love you.”

The letters were uncovered in 2015 during development of a WWI exhibition held at the University of Sydney library, which included Saxby’s four war diaries.

They had been stored in the box of his belongings sent back to his family after his death.

Saxby’s final entry in his diary is dated 13 September 1917:

“…I am leaving this behind when we go in as it would be of value to Fritz if he captured it…”

Saxby was killed in action at the Menin Road Battle in Ypres, Belgium, a week later on 20 September 1917. Still working as a stretcher-bearer, he was helping an injured man when a shell burst near him. He is buried at Cable Head Cemetery, near Hooge, Belgium.

The KK Saxby Prize for Mathematics at the University of Sydney was founded in 1918 by Saxby’s father in the young engineering student’s memory. It is still awarded today through the continuing generosity of the Saxby family.

Macklin later married Leslie Hancock, a horticulturist from Canada, and moved there in 1927. She died on 31 August 1985.

Visit to learn more about the University of Sydney community and the First World War.

Beyond 1914 — The University of Sydney and the Great War is an extensive, searchable database of biographies and archival information about members of the University community involved in the First World War.

Built on the legacy of information provided to the University between 1915 and 1938 by more than 2000 former staff, students, graduates and their families (later published in the University’s 'Book of Remembrance'), Beyond 1914 features insights into the lives of these men and women before, during and after the war.