23RD JULY 1918 AGE 18


This is such a heartbreaking inscription. It comes from a poem by Kathleen Chute-Erson (1879-1966) called Killed in Action, which was published in her 'War Stanzas and Other Poems' in November 1916. I've neither heard of Chute-Erson before nor ever seen this poem. It's the kind of sentimental verse that the twentieth century rejected but it's the type that must have expressed many a mother's feelings:

Yes, I am proud, I shall not weep, my son –
Boy of the high, brave spirit, who lies slain,
Blent with the earth grown hallowed for the stain
Of thy young life-blood. Boy, who on my breast
Has lain, so small, so dear, in infant rest;
Whose tiny, clinging hands and nestling head
Seemed God and life to me - dear son, now dead.

Son of the strong, young frame, the fearless heart,
Vibrant with life and thought, the coming man
Shadowed in graver mood, the finished plan.
My mother-love foresaw and knew content,
And when, all youthful fire and courage blent,
You said good-bye, I smiled (Oh, God! that day
Fear clutched my heart!) I would not have you stay.

Boy! you have died, as we would have you die.
Yes, I am proud, my son, I shall not weep,
But, oh! within the hours of broken sleep
I see your dear, loved form, your eyes, your hair,
And clench my arms to clasp and hold you there;
Then wake and know the glory you have won.
Yes, I am proud, indeed, but - Son, oh, Son!

Those three words - 'Son oh son'. For all that the mother has tried to convince herself that she's proud that her son has died 'as we would have you die', and that she is determined that she 'shall not weep', remembering him as a baby and and 'on the verge of manhood' is actually too much for her. William Stephen was 18 when he was killed in action on the day the 51st Highland Division took Marfaux with very heavy casualties.