Roll of Honour

Every year, on our annual book club trip, we set ourselves a writing challenge. Based on a theme, anything can be submitted: short story, poem, haiku, novello or even a full blown book. Time usually dictates more modest submissions but it’s a massively enlightening process for me and always puts me in awe of the authors we read every month.

This year’s theme was Reliance and here is my submission.

Roll of Honour

Prologue

To commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the Great War, a stunning piece of art has been growing steadily in the moat around the Tower of London. Blood swept lands and seas of red by Peter Cummins has been steadily evolving since the beginning of summer with blood red ceramic poppies seeping out of the windows of the tower, spilling in to the moat. Slowly spreading, like a pool of blood, it’s a moving sight.

As is the roll of honour. Every night, 200 names of fallen soldiers are read out in the gathering dusk, the names of brave men echoing against the ancient stone backdrop. The last post’s plaintive cry concludes the roll call of the remembered. We’ve been to see a few of these over the past months and when we discovered Dame Helen Mirren was reading the roll, we felt we had to go. It was, as usual, an emotionally spare reading. Unknown names to us, from another time, familiar regiments and surnames we all would recognise. I meditated on one soldier, born I assumed, near where I was born in West Yorkshire and served with a local regiment until he was killed at a young age.

I started to think about his life and what brought his name to be read out on this cold September night in London. And there was my inspiration for my Book Club reading task.

Roll of Honour 30 September 2014

Reader: Dame Helen Mirren, Last Post: Drummer McKenna

Gunner J Coddington, Royal Field Artillery

Corporal J Cockerell, Otago Regiment, New Zealand Expeditionary Force

Private D Lowrie, Gordon Highlanders

Gunner C T Bradburn, Royal Field Artillery

Private D L Anderson, Canadian Infantry

Private W J Anderson, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers

Private A Bradley, Canadian Infantry

Private M Colgan, Canadian Infantry

Private R Henry, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers

Lance Corporal A Leacock, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers

Rifleman H Leacock, Royal Irish Rifles

Private J Lee, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers

Private R D Marshall, Cheshire Regiment

Private J King, The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment

Private W Lee, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers

Private R Lyle, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers

Private J McLean, Canadian Infantry

Gunner W C Vockins, Royal Field Artillery

Private B O Vockins, Royal Berkshire Regiment

Gunner S Round, Royal Garrison Artillery

Lance Corporal F L Flowers, New Zealand Rifle Brigade

Private T Walker, London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers)

Private G E Howe, Hertfordshire Regiment

Lieutenant G G W Leary, Gloucestershire Regiment

Private A E Baskett, Middlesex Regiment

Sapper J E Graham, Royal Engineers

Private R Robinson, Yorkshire Regiment

Private J Matthews, Yorkshire Regiment

Private W M Ebsworth, Manchester Regiment

Lance Corporal W Green, Worcestershire Regiment

Private G E Myers, Northumberland Fusiliers

Private C R C Myers, Middlesex Regiment

Captain A Ball, Royal Flying Corps

Private C Petts, Bedfordshire Regiment

Lance Corporal T Holden, Highland Light Infantry

Private A W L Lovell, The Buffs (East Kent Regiment)

Gunner R Ede, Royal Garrison Artillery

Second Lieutenant T H Riordan, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry

Second Lieutenant H W Coneybeare, Lincolnshire Regiment

Private E F Pigott, Royal Berkshire Regiment

Lance Bombardier E Clarke, Royal Field Artillery

Private A Lague, Royal Fusiliers

Corporal A McKerrow, King’s Own Scottish Borderers

Private A M Murray, Royal Scots

Able Seaman E Asher, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve

Private F Wotton, Lincolnshire Regiment

Serjeant C Blythe, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry

Private D Sloan, Black Watch (Royal Highlanders)

Private R Sloan, Canadian Infantry

Private T Sloan, Scots Guards

Sapper W Sloan, Canadian Engineers

Private S H Passmore, London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers)

Private C J Trowbridge, Inns of Court Officer Training Corps

Gunner C M Stevens, Royal Garrison Artillery

Private F E Roberts, Royal Berkshire Regiment

Lance Corporal J W Pyper, Royal Engineers

Private A R M Pond, Royal Fusiliers

Private B Nelson, Canadian Infantry

Private A B G Holloway, Wiltshire Regiment

Private T Hoare, Dorsetshire Regiment

Private S Griffin, Canadian Infantry

Private V F J Fry, Dorsetshire Regiment

Private A E Dyer, Grenadier Guards

Private D E J Cooper, 1st County of London Yeomanry (Middlesex Yeomanry)

Gunner C W Coles, Machine Gun Corps (Heavy Branch)

Lance Corporal R Cassidy, Northumberland Fusiliers

Private J L Carter, Wiltshire Regiment

Private G Carter, Dorsetshire Regiment

Corporal H H Brown, Dorsetshire Regiment

Rifleman J B Bullen, London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifles)

Private A W Beament, The King’s (Liverpool Regiment)

Private J Angell, Dorsetshire Regiment

Private H P Angel, Dorsetshire Regiment

Private G Angell, Dorsetshire Regiment

Lance Corporal J R Allen, Scots Guards

Private F J Allen, Dorsetshire Regiment

Major C V Gould, Royal Field Artillery

Second Lieutenant L T Gribbell, Devonshire Regiment

Second Lieutenant G M Hume, Royal Engineers

Lieutenant E M Mansel-Pleydell, Dorsetshire Regiment

Lieutenant H G M Mansel-Pleydell, Dorsetshire Regiment

Lieutenant F L Northway, South African Mounted Rifles

Second Lieutenant N V Wallis, Cheshire Regiment

Captain T I W Wilson, Manchester Regiment

Serjeant J Orme, Manchester Regiment

Private E H Freestone, Machine Gun Corps (Infantry)

Company Serjeant Major F Fenne, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry

Rifleman H E Sutton, King’s Royal Rifle Corps

Lance Corporal A Westacott, Royal Welsh Fusiliers

Serjeant W R J Sutton, Middlesex Regiment

Lance Corporal R Jolley, Manchester Regiment

Private W Hunter, Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment)

Private W H Thompson, Middlesex Regiment

Mess Room Steward W J Welch, Mercantile Marine

Private C E Welch, Welsh Regiment

Gunner A Harris, Royal Field Artillery

Private W O Rowson, Canadian Infantry

Private J Burke, Lancashire Fusiliers

Private W McDonald, Seaforth Highlanders

Private W A Curtis, Suffolk Regiment

Private H B Davenport, King’s Shropshire Light Infantry

Private G McDonald, Cameron Highlanders

Private J P Metcalfe, Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment)

Private L Blackwell, South Staffordshire Regiment

Lance Corporal W H Millinship, South Wales Borderers

Private M Stevens, Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment)

Private L McBain, Gordon Highlanders

Gunner W C Rolison, Royal Field Artillery

Serjeant W B McNeill, London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers)

Lance Corporal F Scutt, Royal Sussex Regiment

Second Lieutenant V H T Boyton, Royal Garrison Artillery

Private E G Bawden, Suffolk Regiment

Private W J Bone, Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry

Gunner R Heron, Royal Garrison Artillery

Private H McEvoy, Royal Dublin Fusiliers

Private W Johnson, Royal Fusiliers

Able Seaman R B Lucas, Royal Navy

Lance Corporal R M Robson, Durham Light Infantry

Gunner H Cranke, Royal Garrison Artillery

Private V C Elderkin, Canadian Infantry

Lance Corporal E F Down, Canadian Infantry

Sapper T Evans, Royal Engineers

Private W Kelly, Royal Irish Fusiliers

Private A J Jukes, Worcestershire Regiment

Private M H Dodd, Royal Welsh Fusiliers

Lieutenant Jerome Joseph  Fane De Salis, Middlesex Regiment

Second Lieutenant George Rodolph De Salis, Middlesex Regiment

Private J Flynn, Royal Irish Regiment

Private E M Couturier, Machine Gun Corps (Infantry)

Sapper A E Rawlings, Royal Engineers

Private W P Dutton, Worcestershire Regiment

Private E B Haigh, Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment)

Corporal Walter Fruin, Gloucestershire Regiment

Private S A Stephens, Gloucestershire Regiment

Rifleman W Lansdell, Rifle Brigade

Staff Serjeant C E Hill, Royal Army Medical Corps

Lieutenant A H Sturrock, Machine Gun Corps (Infantry)

Lieutenant P A C Sturrock, Royal Navy

Private R R Mitchell, Royal Army Medical Corps

Corporal W G Andrews, Bedfordshire Regiment

Private A Carnochan, Australian Infantry

Private P Revels, East Surrey Regiment

Private A F Clements, Gloucestershire Regiment

Rifleman T H Baker, Rifle Brigade

Serjeant W D Hayes, Middlesex Regiment

Rifleman A G Dimond, Rifle Brigade

Private W Bickerton, Worcestershire Regiment

Private S Higgins, Black Watch (Royal Highlanders)

Serjeant R T Lightley, Royal Engineers

Private W P Trodd, Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment)

Private E D Spencer, Scots Guards

Private F W James, Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment)

Private W James, Gloucestershire Regiment

Private A Howard, Lancashire Fusiliers

Private W H Drew, Gloucestershire Regiment

Private H Garner, The King’s (Liverpool Regiment)

Private W Brundrett, Canadian Infantry

Second Lieutenant G F Brundrett, Cheshire Regiment

Gunner T J Hancock, Royal Garrison Artillery

Private W O Storey, Durham Light Infantry

Private R Mullin, Sherwood Foresters (Notts and Derby Regiment)

Private F Morley, Sherwood Foresters (Notts and Derby Regiment)

Second Lieutenant W L Pardey, South Lancashire Regiment

Corporal W J Gardiner, Irish Guards

Private W T Chidgey, Somerset Light Infantry

Private M Mulholland, Cheshire Regiment

Private W Jennings, London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers)

Private L Wright, Durham Light Infantry

Private H Thornley, Lancashire Fusiliers

Private J H G Fryer, Essex Regiment

Lance Serjeant F G Leaney, London Regiment

Air Mechanic 3rd Class B H Wolfe, Royal Flying Corps

Private G J Youlton, London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers)

Private D MacGregor, London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers)

Private J Barnes, Royal Dublin Fusiliers

Private H Briggs, Suffolk Regiment

Rifleman A Evans, London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifles)

Private A Callaway, Sherwood Foresters (Notts and Derby Regiment)

Serjeant W Barlow, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)

Lieutenant Edward Gordon Abelson, Royal Marine Light Infantry

Rifleman H Richardson, West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own)

I nearly missed out, you know. The war started in 1914 and every lad in the village joined up immediately. I was just 14 and I couldn’t get away with it —although don’t think for one minute I didn’t try.

Everyone was at it, the lads growing their skimpy taches, slicking their hair back, trying to convince the enthusiastic but cautious recruitment officers they were over eighteen. The good ones sent us packing, spotting our teenage con tricks immediately. At the time, we never thought they were doing their job properly, they were just tight bastards to us. But we never gave it a second thought, it was all a game, an adventure, we were there and at the beginning of the war, but plenty of us got the nod don’t you worry. Later on in the war, when we tried the same tricks, they would send the young ‘uns packing, royally cheesed off. By 1917, with the war taking its terrible toll, we realised why they were being so choosy.

Full of it, the successful lads paraded around the taproom of the Railway Arms, waving their papers. The men eyed up the crumpled ivory paper in the tobacco fug with a mixture of bravado and guilt, egging each other on. We’d not seen anything like it, nobody had in our generation, even the old boys remarked on it. . Even the womenfolk, who usually kept their counsel. Underneath, we were all scared and no-one would admit it, men or women.

All the men in our village recruited into The West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’ Own, no less). There was a lot of pride in that old regiment too. We’d all heard of the Leeds Pals and the Manchester Pals and there was a right competition as to how many could sign up at first. I reckon that’s what drove the joining frenzy (as me mam called it). Dad was a farm worker then and too old to try his hand but he had plenty of near miss stories from the Crimea when he was a lad and that only drove us on further. He was a young lad when he served and he reckoned he was there for the Charge of the Light Brigade: flashing steel, mad eyed men and horses shrieking — we all loved to believe him but his stories seemed like from another time.

War was here though, now and of a completely different kind: mechanised, methodical, lads went off and never came back. Those that did were local heroes, damaged and back in the humdrum world of West Yorkshire, unable to talk of their experience. But the thirst for recruits was insatiable and as we all got to the right age, off we went — but you couldn’t stop us, no way.

I was too young to know who I really loved back then. Of course I loved me mam. She looked out for me and had my best interests at heart but me dad was too distant from me and I really couldn’t say whether he loved me or I loved him. Bit of a mystery, really but that was the way it was then. I liked girls, but not in the way that the other lads did. Obviously I didn’t say anything about this to anybody and, looking back on it, I thought it would sort itself out, but it never did. It was our way of doing things, never really tackling things, just brushing them under the carpet.

My biggest regret is never telling the truth to my best friend about how I truly felt about him, but I’m not sure what I would say and what he would think. These were thoughts that had to stay in my mind I think. We were close mates, sharing everything including signing up papers, first cigarettes and genuine excitement about where we were posted. If I said what I really felt, the whole world would change and there was enough going on already without me making it worse.

But I’ve always been a glass half full chap. Mam always used to say that would lead me astray (I disagreed with her dour outlook) why not look on the bright side? Too much gloom already in our Northern town I would say, she would chasten and remind me of our place, I would think of the future and what generations on would think, us Northerners getting above ourselves, being all optimistic and that.

I once saw a dead body. Me dad had a labourer called John Johnson who helped out on the farm during the summer. He was a big lad: brown, strapping arms offset against his white vest, always with a grey flannel cap, moulded to his balding had. Near midsummer, he didn’t turn up for work one day and dad went berserk. Lots of work to do, all that. Eventually, we found the poor soul slumped at the edge of a field, peacefully reviewing the work to be done from his deathly repaste. The first of many was old John. It wasn’t frightening: he’d just gone.

On my first stint in the trenches at Passchendaele, I saw a ghost. I was the new boy along with a whole gang of green lads and we’d been given the night watch. All the serious action happened during the days but the night times were the worst: empty with too much time to think. This particular winter night was horribly quiet and chilled me to the bone. Early January always brought mist and clear skies and an unusual calm to the trenches. I acknowledged a cheerful officer around midnight, who, reminding me of my responsibilities to my fellow men, clumped along the planks, whistling The Rose of No Man’s Land. Gives me goose pimples to recount this tale as I’ve since discovered the dear fellow was killed over a year ago and has been seen by many on the night watch.

The one thing in the trenches that I struggle with is the language. It’s effing this and effing that. I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a swearer but when it comes down to it, I’m not very good at it. I’ve discovered though, it does help in the face of life and death to be able to speak your mind. This is an area for personal improvement — we are after all dealing with life and death and if we can’t shoot AND curse the enemy then what is actually the point of this conflict?

Although mam cried when I marched off on 27th November 1917, I didn’t. I’ll admit I wasn’t quite the enthusiastic war goer I was underage at the beginning of the war and I was ready for a bit of action. Mam had seen plenty of the local men go (and not come back) and at this point in the war, I could even have avoided it. But my determination to play my part, after all these years was too strong.

I’ve done plenty of crying since then of course. Not over some half-baked idea of a West Yorkshire village, but the lads who’ve died beside me. Tears shed for chaps I didn’t really know, my brothers, burned me more than anything in my life. It’s funny but once you’re here, all notions of home vanish and it’s all about getting through it and actually even finishing it.

Since you ask, I last cried on Thursday 29th January 1918. The West Yorkshire Brigade was due a big offensive (‘one last push to finish the war, which was due anytime soon’) – the whole shooting match, the 62nd Division and the 2nd West Riding Division, a right old carry on. All the boys from Imphal Barracks York would be here, in these sodden fields, a long way from Yorkshire. A long way from home.

It was a big old push, early start, little sleep. We huddled together against the mud walls, nerves jangling, the stink of the mud at once familiar and homely. In January, your kit never really dries out but you get used to the feeling of warm, wet insulation against your skin. Dry is a luxury. We’ve seen plenty of these pushes: the lads at front torn to shreds, the ones at the back survive to see another day, blind to risk and danger. There is no use trying to second guess fate: I’ve seen lads at front, middle and back killed. We just form an orderly line and get on with it.

I got to thinking about God, like you do.

Mam and Dad had always believed and we’d always gone to church as kids in the village. The vicar peddled a credible tale or two and most folk bought it: I hedged my bets, back then when the only pressing prayer was for an ailing aunt or some decent weather for the crops. But now, in the trenches, with shells pounding overhead, if there was a God, then now’s the time Lord to show your hand. I have never been a pious soul (forgive me mam, but she knows) but right then I thought about John Johnson’s lifeless from in the field in West Yorkshire, devoid of divine attention, like so many brothers before me.

We all piled over the top on the whistle and those of us lucky enough not to be on the front line ran like crazy to make to first holes. Men fell all around, bullets whistled and lumps of flesh flapped in the air. Some men fell to the floor thinking this would save them but they were easily picked off by the German machine guns. I was oddly calm whilst this was going on, running hard in the midst of the carnage was quite liberating, eyes closed, expecting death any minute, the smell of cordite sour in my nostrils.

Rifleman H Richardson

West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’ Own)

 Killed 30th January 1918

Aged 18

They shall not grow old as we grow old

Age will not weary them or the years condemn

At the going down of the sun,

We will remember them

3 thoughts on “Roll of Honour

  1. Just re-read this again Phil, great interpretation of the theme and lovely bit of writing. I’ll reblog over on the orchard if that’s OK as well as putting up some of the other guys efforts. Top one matey

  2. Pingback: Roll of Honour – by Phil Dean | Into The Orchard

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