‘O lad that I loved, there is rain on your face,
And your eyes are blurred, and sick with the plain.’ – Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967): I Stood with the Dead (June 1918)
My maternal grandfather’s younger brother Edwin was killed in action in the vicinity of Arras, near the Belgian border, one month before the 1918 Armistice. He had enlisted twice, underage. The first time, he followed my grandfather – granda – out to France and granda had him sent back home. He wasn’t aware of his second enlistment.
Like countless others, Edwin has no grave. As commemoration his name is carved into a stone on a wall, at a small Canadian Cemetery in Vis-en-Artois. My grandfather, who was decorated twice for bravery (once for leaving his trench to go into no-man’s-land to drag a wounded officer back to safety) mourned his brother Edwin for the rest of his days.
After the war, granda returned to his job as a coal miner. He retired at 65 – having risen to the position of deputy and a framed certificate, presented by the Coal Board, hung on the wall of the sitting room. It honoured him for 50 years Meritorious Service.
Another framed certificate hung on the wall. It proclaimed that he was being presented with the keys to the city of Ypres. He visited Ypres not many years before he died in 1965, with a group of veteran soldiers of the First World War. He was already ill – enough that his doctor warned him he ought not to go, but adding that he knew very well he had to, and would. Something to that effect.
Granda always spoke of Ypres as Wipers – the deliberate mispronunciation adopted by English-speaking soldiers of the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele, in which nearly half a million souls were lost.
Granda also fought in the Battle of the Somme.
During WWII he served in the community as a special policeman.
Granda loved his garden. He grew vegetables on one side and roses on the other. His favourite rose was the yellow rose called Peace. I have a vivid memory of him showing me a beautiful blossom and telling me it was the rose called Peace.
He won a scholarship to grammar school, but his family were abjectly poor and at 11 years of age he was sent down the mine to earn a few pennies extra income for the family. He never owned a house, nor a car, nor amassed any wealth. After he retired, with just a state pension, he yet would never come back from a trip to the local town without having bought me a sketchbook, exercise book to write my stories in, or a pencil. He had the gift of Love.
My granda’s war efforts along with those of innumerable others made it possible for me to have a secondary education where they didn’t. I was just 14 when he died. I’m glad that he lived long enough to see me go to grammar school. I was the first in the family.
Later I went on to university which opened my life to travel abroad and it was while I was living in France that I visited the Normandy villages and beaches of the Second World War and wept among those rows upon rows of white crosses that stretched endlessly into an impossible distance. I also visited Vimy Ridge where trenches have been preserved and was able to walk – to stand with the dead – in one of these. The ground around undulates – green waves – from crater to crater and some areas are cordoned-off where there may still be live ammunition.
And of course, I have visited that Canadian cemetery in Vis-en-Artois, to stand in front of the stone which carries my great-uncle Edwin’s name, on the spot where my granda had stood in the early 60s. I went into the town and found a florist, where I was able to buy a single yellow rose – to represent the yellow Peace rose my grandfather cultivated in his council house garden – and I took it back to the cemetery and leaned it against the wall and below the stone on which was writ: Shanks, E.
Shanks, E: 100 years dead, not forgotten.