This time of year, I like to re-post the series The War Poets. Just some of the men and women who served on the front line on all sides of the conflict who fought, died or returned scarred by their experiences. If you scroll down the home page you will find them each day.
They went out at 4.a.m each morning my time, which is the coldest before the dawn, and as they would have woken in the trenches to prepare for another day of horror, bravery and sacrifice.
There is no way in the world that I would possibly compare my poetry to those extraordinary men and women who wrote their poetry following their own harrowing experiences. But I did want to add to the series with my own tribute to someone who lived and died during the First World War, and I this poem following my first visit to my grandfather’s grave in Northern France in 1998.
My mother was thirteen months old when her father was killed on November 2nd 1918. He was 31 years old and had been home for her birth following his third wound of the war since joining up in 1914. He had received this latest one when rescuing one of his officers from the front line. He received the Military Medal for his bravery.
He returned to the front when Mollie was six months old. Her mother told her stories about him and that is the only thing that she could pass on as the few photographs she had were lost. I had been in touch with the Forces archives for some time, and they told me that all my grandfather’s records had been destroyed in a fire in the 1920s. However, in 2015, they let me know that some of the damaged documents had been restored and digitised and I was able to get my grandfather’s army records and also sadly a letter from my grandmother to the war office.
She had moved home with my mother who was just a year old. This meant that she was finally notified that he was missing in action as the crowds were celebrating the end of the war in the streets all over the country. For weeks she waited for news and had written the letter to try and find out if he was still alive. Only to be told that the death notification had been sent to her old address.
She would have been given the location of his grave but as a war widow with a young baby there was no way that she could go to France in those days.
The location of his grave in a small village of Poix du Nord in Northern France was only discovered by my sister Diana in the early 1990s and she and her husband took my mother shortly afterwards.
We visited again with my mother in 1998 when we were living about 70 kilometres away in Brussels. Standing there 80 years after his death it felt very emotional to imagine that this young man, Herbert James Francis Walsh, had died so young but had still managed to pass on his genes to those of us standing by his graveside, and since then to two more generations.
I know you through my mother’s words
Even though she was so small when you left.
Her mother told her of your life
And how your sacrifice left her bereft.
Born back in Victoria’s reign
An Irishman, black haired, tall smiling bright
You courted a builder’s daughter
It was love for both of you at first sight.
Came war and you were first in line
To stand and fight for your adopted land.
How proud you looked so tall and strong
As you marched to the docks, kit bag in hand.
A soldier and a hero too
You never once turned your back on duty.
But returned time and time again
Horror muted by a new born beauty.
When the remaining few came home
To parades, loved ones and welcoming arms.
You stayed behind to guard your men
As they lay amid the burnt out French farms.
Today you lie in foreign soil
Tended by strangers who honour your name.
But you also live here in hearts
And a young child’s face whose smile is the same.
Your brief life carries on in us
And on and on through generations strong.
So even far in the future
A child with your blue eyes will read this song.
Thank you for visiting today… Sally.