WILLIE WE ARE CALLING YOU
DAD AND MAM
"Willie we are calling you". William London's father chose his inscription. I can only imagine that he is telling his son that his mother and father have been trying to 'call' him through a spiritualist medium. And I can only imagine that they have not had any answer. It's rather a haunting inscription.
Belief in spiritualism, the belief that it was possible to make contact with the dead beyond the grave, was very popular after the First World War. There were numerous charlatans out there but some people genuinely believed that they were speaking to their dead relations. And not everyone who believed was a gullible innocent. Sir Oliver Lodge, a British physicist who played a key part in the development of radio, firmly believed that he was in touch with his son Raymond who had been killed in action on 14 September 1915.
William London was the younger of his parents' two children. He served with the 2nd Battalion Welsh Regiment and was killed in action on 20 July 1918. There is a gap in the battalion war diary between the end of June and the beginning of November so it's not possible to tell how he might have died.
WE IN SPIRIT
STILL LIVE, LOVE AND COMMUNE
WITH ALL ON EARTH
This inscription asserts a belief in Spiritualism, the belief that the spirit never dies and that it is possible for humans to communicate across the chasm of death. Whilst the world of Spiritualism was awash with cranks and charlatans there were many respected academics who felt convinced of it too. The best known being the highly respected British physicist, Sir Oliver Lodge, who played a key part in the development of radio.
After his son Raymond was killed in action in 1915, Sir Oliver wrote a memoir of his son in which he laid out his beliefs and his evidence, writing:
"Well, speaking for myself and with full and cautious responsibity, I have to state that as an outcome of my investigation into physical matters I have at length and quite gradually become convinced, after more than thirty years of study, not only that persistent individual existence is a fact, but that occasional communication across the chasm - with difficulty and under definite conditions - is possible.
This is not a subject on which one comes lightly and easily to a conclusion, nor can the evidence be explained except to those who will give to it time and careful study; but clearly the conclusion is either folly and self-deception, or it is truth of the utmost importance to humanity - "
'Raymond or Life and Death' by Sir Oliver Lodge Methuen & Co. 1916 p. 389
Mrs Mary Evans, Private Evans' mother, appears to seen it as truth.
Evans was born in Ramsgate, Kent on 12 August 1897. He attested on 4 August 1915 just after his eighteenth birthday. By this time both he and his widowed mother were living in Canada. Evans served with the 75th Battalion Canadian Infantry in France from 11 August 1916 - the day before his nineteenth birthday. He was killed in action on 30 September 1918 when the 75th led the attack on the Cambrai-Douai railway cutting on the sunken road that ran south from Blecourt.
His will, a perforated form torn out from the back of his pay book, left "£10 to Miss Agnes Patterson, Wright County, Cantley, Quebec, Canada, my friend".
HE IS QUIETLY CALLING US
FROM PARALYSING GRIEF
TO HIGH ENDEAVOUR
Many, many families must have struggled with 'paralysing grief'; how could they possibly come to terms with their loss, how could thy make sense of it? Lieutenant Edmondstone's family were among those whose solution was to make themselves worthy of the sacrifice. In this they were following the advice of the popular poet John Oxenham (William Arthur Dunkerley 1852-1941), whose 1915 poem 'Epilogue 1914', asks what will happen when the war is over:
God grant the sacrifice be not in vain!
Those valiant souls who set themselves with pride
To hold the way .... and fought ... and died, -
They rest with Thee.
But to the end of time,
The virtue of their valiance shall remain,
To pulse a nobler life through every vein
Of our humanity.
And who was the 'he' of the inscription, who was quietly calling? You might think it was Christ but it wasn't, it was the dead man, Norman Edmondstone. What makes me think this? The family have quoted from Sir Oliver Lodge's book, 'Raymond or Life and Death', in which Lodge presents evidence to prove that his dead son, Raymond, who was killed in action in 1915, is in communication with them from the spirit world:
"Let us think of him, then, not as lying near Ypres with all his work ended, but rather, after due rest and refreshment, continuing his noble and useful career in most peaceful surroundings, and quietly calling us his family from paralysing grief to resolute and high endeavour."
So, how did families come to terms with their paralysing grief - by believing that their dead were still alive in the spirit world, still in communication with them, urging them to 'resolute and high endeavour'.
Norman Edmonstone, a Lieutenant in the Queen's Westminster Rifles, was hit in the stomach by a shrapnel bullet while waiting with his company for the order to attack the Ottoman defensive systems at Kauwukah and Rushdi during the battle for Hareira and Sheria, part of the Southern Palestine Campaign . He died the following day. His Colonel told his parents:
"He is a very serious loss to me and to the battalion, as he was an untiring and dependable officer with a very good knowledge of a soldier's duty .... He was universally beloved by men and officers, and this I mean literally, for he had a very lovable disposition."
THERE IS NO DEATH
CLOSER IS HE THAN BREATHING
NEARER THAN HANDS AND FEET
"All who know him will feel a sense of personal loss on hearing that Thomas Hanson Averill has been killed in action. His was so bright and attractive a personality that we do not wonder at the affectionate way in which his brother officers have written about him. For him one cannot feel sorry at all, for his parents one cannot feel sorry enough; although they have so much reason to be proud of such a son."
Witley (Worcs) Parish Magazine
His Commanding Officer wrote:
"I and all the officers and men of the battalion feel your son's death most keenly; he was always a keen hardworking and cheerful officer. We shall all miss him very much as he was very popular, and was such a genuine and straightforward man, always reliable - one whom, in these times, we can ill afford to lose."
The second and third lines of Thomas Averill's inscription come from Tennyson's poem, The Higher Pantheon. To Tennyson, God could be found in nature, in "The sun, the moon, the stars, the hills and the plains", He was everywhere. But whereas to Tennyson "Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet" refers to God, I have a feeling that to the Averills it was their son they were referring to. The clue is in the first line of the inscription, "There is no death". This is the title of a well known book on Spiritualism written by the British author Florence Marryat in 1891.
The personal information on Thomas Hanson Averill comes from Sandra Taylor's research for the website Remember the Fallen.
THOUGH ABSENT IN BODY
HE STILL TALKS WITH US
"He still talks with us" ... how? Presumably through the services of a spiritualist medium. Such services were in great demand both during the war and in its immediate aftermath; many people believing fervently that their dead were speaking to them - just as Mr and Mrs Richard Lewis did. The Church disapproved strongly and would not have appreciated the Lewis's thanking God for this manifestation, as far as it was concerned, spiritualism was nothing less than pagan superstition. But those who believed both in God and in spiritualism believed that it was nothing less than evidence of the truth of God's promise of eternal life.
Belief in the supernatural answered a deep emotional war-time need in both soldiers and society. From the persistence of the belief in the acknowledged fiction of the Angel of Mons, or the Crecy bowmen, the individual evidence of soldiers whose dead comrades helped them avoid certain death, and Will Longstaff's hugely popular paintings featuring ghostly soldiers still inhabiting the battlefields, belief in the supernatural brought comfort and consolation.
There were definitely charlatan spiritualists out there, and this is what outraged people like Rudyard Kipling who wasn't interested in the theology of the matter. But though Kipling mocked spiritualism in his poem, The Road to Endor, he also told compassionate supernatural tales, like The Gardener.
Private Lewis served with the 12th Battalion the East Surrey Regiment, which arrived in France in May 1916. He was killed in action on 7 June 1917 when the 12th Battalion East Surrey Regiment attacked on the opening day of the Battles of Messines; the day the British blew nineteen mines along the Messines Ridge at 3.10 in the morning to herald the opening of the attack. Lewis is buried near St Eloi where the largest mine, containing 95,600 lbs of ammonal was fired. We don't know how Lewis was killed but despite the success of the operation some British soldiers were killed by the blast from their own mines.
"CROWNED WITH THE SUNSHINE
OF IMMORTAL YOUTH"
If Ivan Bennett had not had such distinctive initials his body would probably never have been identified. Shot in the head whilst leading an attack on Trones Wood on 13 July 1916 (this was the day of the attack in which he was killed even though the War Graves Commission gives his date of death as the 14th), his body was not recovered from the battlefield until it was discovered in December 1931. There was no identity disc on the body, which was wearing an officer's tunic with the buttons of The Queen's West Surrey Regiment, but among the effects discovered with it was a whistle, a cigarette holder and a pencil case engraved with the initials I.P.W.B.
Bennett was buried in the cemetery adjacent to the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. This cemetery was designed to hold the bodies of 300 French and 300 British soldiers of which only 61 British and 57 French bodies were identified. The intention was to symbolise the joint sacrifice made in this region by the soldiers of both nations, especially the unidentified 'missing' whose names were among the 72,000 recorded on the memorial.
Ivan Bennett's inscription was chosen by his cousin Mrs Dorothy Joyce Bousted (nee Husey-Hunt). His mother was still alive, widowed in 1908 when her husband, from whom she was separated, committed suicide in Bournemouth. Following which, Ivan, who was 17 and in the Lower Sixth at Wellington College, left school and became articled to a firm of solicitors in Guildford. On the outbreak of war he took a commission in The Queen's, went to France in July 1915, and was promoted Captain that November.
Ivan was one of five children, three boys and two girls. One of his brothers, Vere Cyril Wentworth Bennett, died of pneumonia in Italy in October 1918 whilst serving with the Royal Garrison Artillery. His mother chose his inscription - "Honourable, loving and beloved". She was still alive when Ivan's body was discovered but neither she nor one of the sisters chose his inscription. In the 1901 census, ten-year-old Ivan is staying with his uncle and aunt and their five-year-old daughter Dorothy Joyce Husey-Hunt in Hove, Sussex. His parents and siblings were living in Bedford. Does this mean that his cousin had a particularly close relationship with Ivan, is this why she chose his inscription?
The lines come from 'Rupert Brooke', a poem by Alfred Dodd published in 1918 in a small collection called 'The Ballad of the Iron Cross'. The poem echoes the style and rhythms of Brooke's 'The Soldier' and outlines Dodd's belief in the survival of the spirit after death, not as in the Christian belief in eternal life but as in the world of Spiritualism.
"If I should die before I've reaped my mind
Of all its fruits - its tares as well as grain,
Think not half-empty hands have toiled in vain
A meagre harvest ... scattered to the wind!
Think not that destiny hath dealt unkind
With heart-emotions, ... surging thoughts of brain,
And that my sheaves are rotting in the rain,
Washed by the pitiless years I've left behind.
Think, rather, this: That I on other fields
Have joined the happy reapers who are free
To garner all the wealth that summer yields, ...
Thoughts beauteous with the fire of holy truth, ...
And, unafraid of winter, think of me,
Crowned with the sunshine of immortal youth."
ONE OF "NATURE'S GENTLEMEN"
AND THE BEST OF HUSBANDS
BAPTIST AND THEOSOPHIST
This epitaph solves one thing - it proves conclusively that the War Graves Commission did not count punctuation marks as characters - unlike Twitter. A scribbled figure beside this inscription notes that it has 70 characters, which there are only if you don't count the brackets, the apostrophe and the quotation marks. That's still four more than the War Grave Commission's 66 character limit, but as this project has already noted, some inscriptions are much longer than 66.
According to his wife, Ernest Lord was one of nature's gentleman, see epitaph 217, a phrase describing a man who had all the qualities of a gentleman without being born to his station in life.
It's very interesting that she is so specific about his religion - Baptist and Theosophist - not a combination that either church could have been happy with.
Theosophy's three main objectives were:
1. to promote the brotherhood of man without distinction of race, colour, religion or social position.
2. to select universal world ethics from a study and comparison of ancient world religions.
3. to study and develop the latent divine powers in man.
Theosophy received a boost from the First World War, for some because of its interest in the brotherhood of man but for others their interest lay in the study and development of "the latent divine powers of man", which often meant spiritualism, communication with the dead usually through a spirit medium.
Gunner Ernest Lord was killed in action on 29 April 1918
RAYMOND WHO HAS HELPED
MANY TO KNOW
THAT DEATH IS NOT THE END
And how had Raymond helped many to know that death is not the end? By speaking to his parents through a spirit medium and describing the world he now found himself in with enough detail about his past life to be able to convince them that it was really him.
Second Lieutenant Raymond Lodge was killed in action on 14 September 1915. On 25 September his mother (M.F.A.L.) "who was having an anonymous sitting for a friend with Mrs Leonard, then a complete stranger, had the following spelt out by tilts of a table, as purporting to come from Raymond: - TELL FATHER I HAVE MET SOME FRIENDS OF HIS.
M.F.A.L. - Can you give any name?
Frederic Myers, 1843-1901, was a founder member of the Society for Psychical Research of which Raymond's father, Sir Oliver Lodge, was also a member. But Sir Oliver was no ordinary credulous bereaved relation, he was a senior scientist, a physicist who had done extensive research in the fields of electromagnetism and radio. He had been Professor of Physics at University College, Liverpool from 1881 to 1900 and was now Principal of Birmingham University.
The war saw a huge growth of interest in spiritualism, the belief in the survival of the human personality after death and the ability of the living to communicate with this personality. Those interested in the subject included people with genuinely scientific enquiring minds, as well as the superstitious, the ignorant and the flagrant deceivers. They did not believe they were cranks but open minded, free thinkers as opposed to closed minded traditionalists. After all, magnetism, electricity and radio waves were all various forms of long distance communication which had been unknown until recently so why not telepathy and communication with the dead.
A year after his son's death, Sir Oliver wrote a book about his communications with his son called 'Raymond or Life and Death with examples of the evidence for survival of memory and affection after death'. It was a best seller and ran through many editions but was also ridiculed by many of Sir Oliver's colleagues in the scientific community. Despite this, some years later when the permanent cemeteries were constructed and the Lodge's got their chance to choose a headstone inscription for Raymond, which looks as though it was in 1922 seven years after his death, they reiterated their belief in Raymond's survival:
Raymond who has helped
Many to know
That death is not the end
YET HE IS HERE
WITH US TODAY
A THOUSAND THINGS
HIS TOUCH REVEAL
Who is 'he', the person whose touch is revealed in a thousand things? I think it's the dead soldier, Walter Birkett, but I could be wrong and 'he' could be God. However, I don't think it is.
There was a huge popular interest in spiritualism during the 19th and early 20th centuries and this interest mushroomed during and after the First World War. People were desperate for some word from their dead sons and husbands and mediums provided them with this comfort - whether they were complete charlatans or not.
In fact the war encouraged the belief in ghostly manifestations with legends and images like the Angels of Mons , and the White Comrade . And after the war the Australian artist and former soldier, Will Longstaff, painted a series of extremely evocative images of soldierly ghosts haunting old battlefields and newly erected war memorials: the Cenotaph, Vimy Ridge, the Menin Gate, the coast of Belgium and Gallipoli. It all brought comfort to the thousands of people whose hopes for the future had been so radically altered by the death of their men.
This is why I think that Walter Birkett's inscription references his parents' belief in their son's continuing presence rather than in God's.
Birkett was born in Kingston Jamaica in the British West Indies in December 1892. He came to Canada with his parents and in 1914 was living in Cooksville, Toronto. He was a teamster and carried his experience as a wagon driver into the army where he served with the 2nd Division Ammunition Column of the Canadian Field Artillery. He died of wounds at a Field Ambulance station on 8 August 1916.
The source of the quotation is actually a poem by Claude Burton called An Unknown Grave.
4 January 2018
WHY DON'T YOU ANSWER ME
At first I thought this had to be a reference to spiritualism and imagined that James Fern's father was complaining that he had not been able to make contact with his son in the spirit world. And in a way it is: Old Pal, Why Don't You Answer Me? is the title of a mournfully romantic popular song, written by Jerome K Jerome in 1920, in which a man expresses his loneliness to his dead wife, wishing she would answer his prayers and presumably send him some sort of sign.
James Fern Snr was a widower, his wife had died in 1916, and James Jnr was their eldest child. Although the song wasn't written until after the war, work didn't start on Abeele Aerodrome Cemetery until 1923, which explains how a quote from a post-war song can provide the inscription for a 1918 casualty.
Old pal, old gal,
You left me all alone;
Old pal, old gal, I'm just a rolling stone.
Shadows that come stealing,
Thru' the weary night;
Always find me kneeling,
In the candlelight.
Old pal, old gal,
The nights are long and drear;
Old pal, old gal,
Each day seems like a year.
No one left to meet me,
After all I've toiled;
No one here to greet me,
It's an empty world.
The long night through I pray to you,
Old pal why don't you answer me?
My arms embrace an empty space,
The arms that held you tenderly.
If you can hear my pray'r away up there;
Old pal why don't you answer me?
Words Sam M Lewis & Joe Young
Music Jerome K Jerome
HE WAS ONLY AN ATOM
IN THE MATERIAL
OH! HOW MIGHTY HE IS
IN THE SPIRIT
I have very little evidence for this but I have a feeling that the background to this epitaph lies in spiritualism or even theosophy, both believed in the evolution of the spirit after the death of the material body.
Eighteen-year-old John Hubbard was the son of John Chamberlain Hubbard a blacksmith from Glen Parva in Leicestershire who had served with the Leicestershire Regiment in the Boer War. John Hubbard died from the effects of gas in a base hospital at Etaples.