6 November 2015

Unknown Soldiers

The final resting place of Frank Keys
 August 1977. Donna Summer was No 1 in the charts with 'I Feel Love' soon to be ousted by a plethora of Elvis songs due to his death on the toilet in Graceland. The only death that mattered to me during that month was that of my beloved Grandfather at the age of 69. I was 15 and although death had touched my life prior to my Grandfather's passing, it hadn't absolutely crushed my soul as this one did.

This blog is not about my Grandfather though. It is about what went before in the history of my family and what followed. For two weeks following his death I stayed with my bereaved Grandmother, sleeping next to her in my Grandfather's bed, on hand to deal with the tea making and a myriad of other things including keeping her company and holding her hand. Those two weeks along with a week that my Mother spent with me following the birth of my son in 1994, are held as the most precious of times.

At night we lay side by side in twin beds and Nan talked whilst I listened and I learned so much. She talked of her childhood lived in the mean streets of Aston, regaling stories of her sisters and her Mother, of school, of games, of being the Spearmint Queen, of how she met my Grandfather, courting, the Monkey Run in Aston, working at Dunlop and other places too. She also talked about her Father. She had no memories of him for he died when she was a mere 18 months old on the killing fields of The Somme. I've written about him before. Frank Keys was an ordinary man who lived in extraordinary times and he was missed by my Grandmother for all of her life.

Grave with the remains of six unknown soldiers
Those two weeks spent with Nan were in retrospect a wonderful gift, for she ignited a spark that, coupled with stories my Grandfather told me throughout my childhood, grew into a life long passion for family history. We first visited her Father Frank's grave in France in 1990 and I have wanted to return for a very long time. I got that opportunity whilst on holiday in France in July.

Our first day on The Somme was dull with a soft mist of rain that eased only briefly during the day. Despite the rain it was 28C, so being outside was similar to being immersed in a warm bath throughout day.

 First stop was Serre Road No 2 Cemetery where 7,127 soldiers are buried of which, only 2,183 have been identified. It is Frank's final resting place although it was not his first. Frank like so many, was originally in death, an unknown soldier. First interred at High Wood his remains were exhumed on 15th June 1928. The remains were examined, Frank's identity disc was gone as was his hair but he still wore his uniform and boots and had certain pieces of equipment with him. He also had an identifying button and was wearing his wedding ring. Frank is recorded as being 5'7" tall and of his teeth, all were in good condition apart from the 4 upper and 1 lower that had been extracted in life. Frank's death certificate states that he died of wounds and I have spent many hours wondering what those wounds were and if he lingered in pain, hoping that he didn't. I think the answer to this lies in the exhumation report; Frank's lower back was broken.

His wedding ring was returned to his regiment, The South Staffords. What happened to that ring that had lain for 12 years on Frank's body? Frank's widow Ellen died in January 1928, my Grandmother was a mere 13 years old and now an orphan. I am sure that she never knew of it.

None of that information had been available to me the first time I visited Frank's grave so this time, there was even more poignancy than the first time and more questions in my head that can never be answered.

The cemetery is huge, gradually rising from the road on a gentle slope but it is not impersonal. Beautifully kept as all CWGC cemeteries are, it is arranged in such a way so that you do not get the full impact of just how many soldiers rest there until you stand in one of the upper corners and look down towards the entrance. I caught my breath as I imagined those 7,127 soldiers all standing facing the entrance and away from me, as if on parade, uniforms neat and spotless, boots shining. In my imagination they stood silently, their faces unknown but known from the hundreds of photographs and silent films that survive from their time. A tear slipped down my cheek and mingled with the soft rain falling from the sky.

We stood in front of Frank's grave and then Aiden left me to spend some time alone with him. I told him of all the major events in my life since I had last stood there some 25 years before, including the death of my dearest Grandmother,his daughter and of a new generation, my children. I promised once again that he would never be forgotten and that I would return again.

Late morning saw us travel the few miles to the memorial at Thiepval. Thiepval is the largest Commonwealth war memorial in the world. At 45 meters tall it can be seen for miles around. A focal point. This visit was personal too, not for me but for Aiden. I will leave him to tell the full story of Herbert Goulding, his Great Grandfather but he seems to have been an amazing man from what we have discovered of him.

Herbert's name is one of the 72,205 names of Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies have never been found or identified. The unknown soldiers. In addition to the commemoration of the unknown there are also 600 graves at Thiepval, 300 from the Commonwealth and 300 French soldiers. They lie together in perpetuity.

Herbert unlike Frank was a career soldier. By the time World War 1 erupted he was a Regimental Sergeant Major in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He was much decorated having spent many years soldiering in Africa including the Sudan and in the Anglo-Boer War. We know that Herbert died on 4th November 1916 virtually at the end of the Somme offensive. We know that he died at Guedecourt and we know that his death must have been 'glorious in war' for he was just a few weeks later, posthumously awarded the Military Cross. He was father to three young children; Ethel, Herbert and Ella and husband to Ethel.

Thiepval was shrouded beneath scaffolding as essential works were undertaken to ensure that the memorial is at its best for the commemorations in 2016 of the centennial of The Somme Battle but it was still an imposing sight. The French Tricolour and the Union flag fluttered above and still the soft warm rain continued to fall. As we walked closer to the memorial the names of some of the unknown became clearer and as we climbed the steps the full impact of what 72.205 names inscribed into Portland Stone actually looks like struck us. Thiepval is a powerful monument. Those columns of names, one after the other, row upon row, wall upon wall, all of them someone's son, father, brother, grandson, nephew, uncle, envelope you, wrapping themselves around you giving a true sense of the enormity of what happened and what was lost; a generation and then the tendrils of events and changes that happen throughout the generations to come because of what happened to these men.

We found Herbert's name. It is an automatic action to reach out and touch the only thing that is left of someone. I left Aiden to his tears and thoughts and he laid his poppy.

Many ask why is this so emotional, to visit a memorial or a grave of someone that is unknown to you but it part of your genetic character? I have no real answer but even in places where neither of us had a relative lying underneath there was still a raw pull against the heart. It's all those soldiers standing there, still whole in your imagination, so young, so full of hope for the future.

We walked around the graves and paid special homage at the grave of an unknown soldier of the Lancashire Fusiliers.

Inside the visitor centre there was more and entirely unexpected emotion to come for both of us. Pam and Ken Linge have been working on a database for The Missing of The Somme for many years and now have biographical  details of over 12,000 of the missing available to view at the centre. Herbert had a full page all to himself and we read newspaper articles reporting comments made by those who had known him in life. All were unanimous in saying what a considerate, kind and thoughtful man Herbert was and how much he would be missed. Beside the computer tables was a panel, created in 2004 containing head and shoulder pictures of 600 of the missing. On the bottom row near the right hand side was a photograph of Herbert. We were amazed and Aiden was overcome. It is not every day that a discovery such as this is made and realisation dawns that thousands of visitors in the centre every year gaze upon Herbert's face. Naturally we purchased the poster.

Later in the afternoon we visited Lochnagar Crater, so named after Lochnagar Street which was a British communication trench. Here in 1916 the enemy lines came within 15 yards of one another. At the end of June 1916 the 179th Tunnelling Company packed 2 explosive charges of 26.8 tons that at 7.28 am on the 1st of July 1916, along with 16 other mines, exploded. The explosion was so loud that it could be heard in Downing Street. The crater is 91 meters in diameter and 21 meters deep. It is immediately apparent that the crater is itself a war grave. It would not have been possible at the time to have recovered all the bodies of those killed on this front line stretch with the myriad of tunnels underneath and indeed men who died so long ago are still being discovered. Private George Nugent went missing in action on 1st July 1916. 82 years later his remains emerged from the chalky soil.

As we stood at the crater looking out across the peaceful and lovely countryside it was hard to remember that this was once hell and is the final resting place of thousands of soldiers, known and unknown. As we drove all around the Somme we were acutely aware of the number of memorials and cemeteries, large and small, so very many. It would take months if not years to visit every single one. We reflected upon how many graves we had seen that day. We thought about 20,000. 20,000 graves in just one day. I tried to imagine 20,000 men standing across the countryside but the number was too large for me to conjure out of my head.

The rain continued to fall and we returned to the car. It is hard not to reflect upon the futility of war, of all wars when you are faced with the reality of the aftermath. Even so I feel humbled by the contribution that mine and Aiden's Great Grandfathers' made and of the ultimate sacrifice they and their families made. The echoes of their lives and deaths are with us still, as are those of all the unknown soldiers, the missing. May they continue to be found.
Thiepval Cemetery

Rupert Brooke

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:

    That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
    In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
    Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
    Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

    A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
        Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
    And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
        In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic account made all the more touching by the specter of the tears so described. Consider if you will, as I do, that those tears contained the genes of the fallen. - G