The year 2018, a special year; a year of contemplation and of remembrance.
100 years since the end of World War One; Great Britain and the Allied European Countries marked this monumental passing of time, with a series of celebrations, some involving various country leaders and dignitaries all uniting in peace and respect for the fallen, around cenotaphs and memorials across Europe. And some involving the private and personal retelling of stories within families around a shared pot of tea.
A time for reflection. The country and the world paused.
And so it was in the summer of 2018 that I finished and printed up my dedicated works to the brothers Strong, two of many brave volunteers whose young lives were lost in the Great War. Laminated and attached to two red poppies, these poems, in honour of the brothers sacrifice, were sent back to their home town of Durham in time for the eleventh November remembrance day parade. My understanding is that the writings can now be found in the Durham Light Infantry museum or the Cathedral of Durham itself, that has a dedicated corner to the Durham lads who died serving in World War One.
But the journey of discovery for me, my first acquaintance with the boys, if you will, began five years earlier...
I love France. I love its fabulously diverse and beautiful countryside, its colourful, passionate people, its language full of rich gesticulation. And I love the food and the wine.
I am fortunate enough to share the best of company with two great friends, Jill and Andy and a wonderful, lovely partner, who incidentally is half French. Together our foursome are regular and enthusiastic cross channel travellers. In May 2013 we found ourselves in Picardie in Northern France. As is our way, we immediately immersed ourselves in the regional culture and history, and for this part of France the Somme dominates, its trenches still etched across the green, fertile fields.
One day having abandoned the idea of Monet’s picturesque garden in Giverny because of torrential unrelenting rain, we found ourselves by default in the old town of Albert, its trench museum offering a dry haven. Not what we’d planned but pleased to have discovered it.
I remember descending below ground.
I remember a sequence of poignant displays gradually unfolding the horrors of trench warfare.
I remember one by one, our voices falling silent.
We were not prepared.
Our sombre and moving experience at this provincial museum left us with a need to pay our respects and honour the sacrifice of these young men. We headed for Thiepval Monument, one of the largest war memorials on the Somme not really knowing what to expect.
Four diminutive figures standing in the shadows cast by this vast monument, the early evening sun having finally broken through the stubborn cloud. Reading and reflecting on the rows and rows and rows of names, each a fallen soldier whose physical remains were never recovered but whose memory is honoured there.
I began scanning the surnames randomly at first overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and then with increasing urgency searching for my own surname... Would I find a Strong among them?
Yes... there, and there, in fact quite a few Strongs, comrades-in-arms carrying my name.
I went to the memorial book displayed in one of the pillars to discover more...
I read from this book scant details of two Strong brothers from Durham: James and George. They had my name, had lived in my old family home town. Had I really found my own...?
..... And so it began.
A giant, awesome, arched monument in France,
Built after the Great War to commemorate.
(Not that any of it was great)
There are carved countless names:
Tens of thousands of those without graves,
It’s just an exact number you would forget
But the monument built of stone
Built on the mud fields and trenches where they died,
It will last
As long as we choose to remember the past.
Two brothers there. George and James Strong
Are remembered here.
I have pieced together bits of lives
From facts and accounts, census and bmd files;
War records, effects, medals: clues,
Regiment diaries , local paper news.
And with assumptions and conclusions
I have built a story.
Of two short lives.
Who boldly answered Lord Kitchener’s call
And became a lost generation all.
I know where they lived
But not how they looked.
Not yet. Perhaps never.
And they can be found
Two brothers war bound
Who joined different regiments
I do not know why.
We will remember them.
But how long them for?
How long can we remember those who are not
Around to tell their stories any more?
Now that the brothers and Dad and Mum
And their sister’s daughters
And their sons are gone?
We will remember them
But the story gets lost.
In time for sure,
In the mud
In the four years of war.
I share a name with these two guys
And I feel for sure that they are my distant
Cousins of uncles and great, great
Distant nephews of my Durham family.
But... It doesn’t matter...
They were there.
And I want to connect.
They deserve to be remembered
These two men who lived so much
Even before they went to war.
A hundred years ago and more.
He went down’t mine in Witton.
Aye, well, worr’ else could he do?
As his Da’ before him
Tha’s all ‘as they ever knew.
At fourteen years of age
William followed and earned a wage.
Bill was a canny lad.
Full of attitude and spark
It was only going down’t pit
That made his life a little dark.
He loved and wed his sweetheart.
Christina, she was his rock.
And before too long
She gave him a daughter Lizzie and Jas and George; boys
Who became the bonnie apple of his Bill’s eyes.
For over twenty years he worked in’t pit.
The noise, the dust and heat
The muscle wrenching chore
In the dark, the sweat, the pain.
Too many years of breathing black, choking dust
Coughing up blood, breathing lungs like rust.
He couldn’t hack it any more, the job gave him up.
But William, aye, he was a cheery man.
Full of life and spirit and he loved to laugh
And joke and to be at the centre of things.
Took his tired legs and his bad back.
And got a job in his local pub.
Didn’t pay much.
But it was something.
And he was good.
Loved talking, being with pals and like-minded working men
And before long he’s the landlord of Durham’s Puncheon Inn.
Mine host he was.
James and George inherited their Pop’s good looks and manner,
They promised to be good and to work hard at school,
To learn a trade and then in the due course of time,
Promised to never, ever, follow their Pop down the mine.
But their Pop he wor’ not a well man
And he died in 1907 in’t Spring
Working down’t mine, it took everything.
Left Christina and the boys then homeless.
You didn’t think about it.
You’d go mad if you did.
Crazy to think that less than a week before in Baizieux
Only a train ride and a march or two to another world from
Miles of lines of trenches and holes dugout.
They had been men just like them, comrade afraid, war weary bleary
Eyeing the world with a sometime distant look.
They had cleaned their guns and boots
Rested in the sun, paraded and the more hope faded.
They played football.
Kicking about. Surreal games combat played
Rugby against 129th French...
At Delville Wood they had won.
A few hundred yards run.
The bombardment lasted hours and hours
But James wasn’t counting down just trying to keep his head low
It was enough.
Amidst the mud and the noise in the growing gloom.
It was all he could do
To just see another night through.
But what of pals?
He had taken a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder.
It had smashed bone and flesh and the blood
Had soaked his jacket and vest
It was bad.
And Bertie had sobbed and whimpered and cried like a child.
James made him comfortable, propped him up beside him,
James had seen it all before,
Knew the outcome would be quick and sure.
In the hell around them; amidst the screaming thudding barrage of war and death
Mouth to ear,
James talked about rabbits and home.
Of shared Durham childhoods.
Oblivious to be hammering clamour, oblivious to the pain
Bertie drifted in and out and shivered, trembled cold and hot
Snot running from his nose, James did what
Solace he could, they shared a Woodbine
And a moment at the end of time.
What of home?
Best not to think.
Of sisters waiting for news. A post card home.
And being brave.
Or Pop and Ma and brother George’s grave.
And on and on and back to front.
Weary cold and so tired.
At the dawn of 16th, another day, orders brought
To establish a line past Guedecourt.
There a total resignation of your lot.
You just did what
You’re told, what you had to do, your best.
To try and make relief and rest.
What of hope?
What of cranky metal tank?
And the ammo failing to come up the flank?
Amidst machine gun fire,
Hopeless progress, advance
Doesn’t count in yards,
It counts in brothers and sons and Dads and mud
And forthcoming 10th Battalion blood.
I don’t know what we all expected.
But it wasn’t this.
The weeks have gone marching and parading by
And months of training, waiting, not knowing why.
And more months, until
Full speed to Folkestone and France
And more training and waiting chance.
Then into action.
But we’ve not seen a lot.
Just freezing cold and wet
Trenches of mud.
We are like rats scurrying, scratching, digging in the dirt.
Keeping our heads down.
It’s ugly and it’s galling,
And hell, it’s all so bloody boring.
We’ve not been in any real danger yet, not hand to hand.
Not that we want excitement here..
Lads around me, they’re great, them all
And I so dread to see them fall.
But we know it will come.
My little brother is out there somewhere
In this no-mans land.
Yes, here! A few miles near, my Jas.
I wonder if we will meet
Exchanging looks and words so fleet.
Our battalion relieved by Durham lads like me
Passing by, how strange would that be?
They say there’s a big push coming up.
It’ll all be over by Christmas.
Home for the New Year. We can hope. By God, what a hope.
We don’t get told a thing, nowt,
We’re just their rats scurrying about.
July 1st 1916.
Half past seven in the morning.
Raining. What a godforsaken start to the day.
As bombs the like we’ve not seen or heard before
Went off, one after another shaking the ground, oh my!
Smoke and muck spewing up filling the sky
Over Albert, on the River Somme.
That’s where we’re going.
Scared? We all are.
I chucked me breakfast up.
So sick of it all.
This is it.
We all know.
And away we go.
Heavy of heart? Why aye.
But we’re Northern lads, born and bred, and proud of it, we can take it.
“It’s your favourite tonight Lizzie...
Apple pie and cream...”
How can I be so old?
And my Edwin
Who went before me.
I miss him so. He was old.
But they were so young,
Blue eyed and wavy dark hair
They loved my apple pie... those two boys there.
“Is there anything you need Lizzie?”
You can’t see how much I think of them.
You see me sitting here,
Aged, shrivelled, wrecked and meek.
My voice as whisper, but a creak.
They come back to me
Always on the brink of laughter,
Full of life.
Everything in front of them,
It was all such a waste.
My Pop.,.. I can still see his rugged face.
And can hear his wracking cough,
From years, too many years of digging coal.
But he always was the life and soul.
And he had such a spirit, a love of life.
It would have broken his heart...
“Spotted dick for afters Lizzie?”
It was always a happy home.
But Pop was not well, we could tell.
Two brothers, a sister had (one gone young, so sad)
We ran the Angel Inn in Durham... Edwin and I.
Dull moments, well, there were not that many
Noisy nights were two-a-penny.
It was always a happy home.
But the war changed all that.
We never knew what happened
In the war on the Somme to our boys.
Even though we had the scroll
“Went missing in action” was all it told.
And there really was only me left
To not welcome them home,
And to bear it all.
“Rice pudding tonight, Lizzie”
They would have liked that.