Secret wartime love reunites family

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 18/03/2014
Frans Debruyne
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ
REUNION TOAST: Peter Wilkinson, left, and Frans Debruyne toasted each other in their countries’ beers yesterday.
Robert Wilkinson
MYSTERIOUS GRANDFATHER: Sergeant Major Robert Wilkinson, with Gabrielle Tally.

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The journey started with a secret wartime affair, a mistaken death, and a faded photograph.

Nearly a century later, it ended yesterday with a family reunion in Peter Wilkinson's Wellington home, as two grandsons from different parts of the world met for the first time.

Frans Debruyne travelled from Belgium to meet his long-lost cousin after uncovering the fate of his mysterious grandfather, Sergeant Major Robert Wilkinson.

His only clues were a name, a regiment, a fatal battle and two photographs his grandmother, Gabrielle Tally, had kept of the young soldier from 1917.

For much of his life, Debruyne did not know Robert Wilkinson was his grandfather. It was not until he was 35 that his father told him the man married to his grandmother was not his grandfather. Instead it was an English soldier called Robert Wilkinson, who the family believed had died fighting in the trenches in 1917.

"My father said he [the soldier] was the love of her life," Debruyne said, "which is a bit sad for my second grandfather."

But it took Debruyne another 28 years to discover the young officer had actually survived the war, had a young English wife and son at the time, and had emigrated to New Zealand.

So Debruyne set out to find his lost Kiwi relatives, and yesterday shared a beer with one of Wilkinson's grandsons in his home in Churton Park, Wellington.

"I had a feeling that I must do this because I felt, if I didn't, it would chase me for the rest of my life," he said.

For Wilkinson, the discovery that his grandfather, who has long since died, had another family in Belgium was a complete surprise.

"At first I didn't register it and then I was like 'bloody hell, we have another family here'."

Wilkinson appears to have struck up a relationship with Tally between deployments while visiting her hometown of Poperinge, where British soldiers were billeted because it was near the battlegrounds at Ypres, on the Western Front.

He sent her at least six postcards over 18 months, including one from London, which she kept till her death. She also nicknamed Debruyne's father Robert.

It is not known whether the young soldier knew his lover was pregnant when he left her behind. Equally, it is not known whether Tally knew her lover had a wife.

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Either way, his grandmother never breathed a word of her English lover, Debruyne said.

"It was a secret forever for her. In those times, it was not something you talked about."

Neither of the cousins judged the wartime lovers for their secret affair.

"I don't normally think a bloke having it off with someone else is appropriate, but this was a difficult time. They didn't know how long they would be around," Wilkinson said.

While the lovers did not live their lives together, in an odd twist both died in 1967, each unaware of the other's fate.

- The Dominion Post

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