LANCE SERJEANT JOSEPH BELL
1ST JULY 1916 AGE 30
BURIED: BLIGHTY VALLEY CEMETERY, AUTHUILLE WOOD, FRANCE
The words of the Order for the Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer have brought comfort to mourners for centuries. This inscription comes from the prayer said by the priest at the graveside as the body is lowered into the ground.
Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased? Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the pains of eternal death. Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.
The words express truths that were never more evident than on 1 July 1916 - that our lives are short, that we can be cut down like a flower at any time, and that whilst we live death surrounds us on all sides.
Joseph Bell was among almost 20,000 men killed along the Somme front on that one day. It's a distance of between fifteen and twenty miles depending on how many twists and turns of the front line you take into account. So that's a thousand bodies a mile, almost one every two yards. How on earth were they all buried?
Many bodies of course weren't buried, they just disappeared, pulverized by shells, trodden into the ground, lost for ever. Others were carried to prepared grave trenches just behind the lines. This is what happened to Joseph Bell. And, whilst the army made every attempt to bury soldiers with dignity, funeral services must have been pretty hurried and abbreviated in the days immediately following 1 July.
Joseph Bell's mother, Sarah, chose his inscription. Not only is it a form of momento mori - take care how you live as death is all around you - but, by referencing the words from this funeral prayer, Mrs Bell evokes its whole sentiment for her son: "O holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the pains of eternal death ... and suffer us not, at our last hour ... to fall from thee".