Guest blog: Family threads woven together through time.
In 2015 Clare Chamberlain, whose ancestors lived in The Weaver’s House in the early 20th century, paid a visit to the WWI battlefields. This is her creative response to that visit. You can read her blog post about the visit itself here.
Saturday 13th November 1915 – 122 Spon Street, Coventry, England
Joseph O’Neil is in his workshop at the back of the house repairing pair after pair of boots. The smell of leather perfumes the house and the noise from his tools is pleasantly rhythmic. He’d like to be in the pub across the road, but that’ll have to wait till later, when his wife Harriet is out taking the two children to visit his mother Eliza. She’s been worrying about this war so much, poor old gal, with two sons already involved and another desperate to do his bit.
Joseph is a bit old to join up but his brother William has been in the Army for the last 13 years, just demobilised and now talking of going back. And his youngest brother James is only a lad of 23 and was sent to France in September. God knows where he is and what he’s doing now.
As he pulls another battered boot from the hessian sack, his thoughts drift to James’s last letter. He sounded fine. He said the crossing to Boulogne hadn’t been too rough, and that they were marching a long way each day, but of course he couldn’t say where they were headed. He may not have even known, other than that it was East. Joseph only hopes that his brother is safe and well, and that he can send another letter home soon to ease his mother’s worries.
Saturday 13th November 1915 – Nr Houplines, Northern France.
James pulls his coat tightly around himself. It’s really nippy today. The rain is holding off thankfully but the cold has got into his bones, his fingers and toes are numb. They moved into this trench only yesterday, relieving the lads from the other battalions, and already he’s sick of the sight of it. The German lines aren’t far away; if he was daft enough to stick his head up he’d be able to see them!
There was shelling earlier and his ears are still ringing from it. Luckily most of it missed them just here, but some unfortunate sods further down the line would have got it.
As James stamps his feet and shuffles around in an attempt to get warm he thinks of his family back home. He hopes his mother isn’t too worried, that his brothers are ok. He wonders if his father even understands what’s going on in the world, locked up in that asylum for so long now. He’s seen a few lads that’ll probably be heading to the same place after all this.
And now the terrible noise has started again, a shell comes over and lands with a terrible thud. Then another… and James feels the warmth of his own blood running down his arm inside his jacket. The pain comes like an electric shock, he feels dizzy, the sky grows darker, the ground comes up to meet him.
As he comes round he can feel himself being pulled, dragged. The noise seems distant now. He can’t be sure if it’s because he’s gone half deaf or if he’s further from it. Faces leaning over him. Being moved again, lifted. But now the faces are familiar; his mother, his brother Joseph, his little niece Winifred. The pain washes over him, it’s getting dark again, and he’s tired. So tired. And then nothing.
Thursday 12th November 2015 – Nr Houplines, Northern France.
I am stood in a freshly ploughed farmer’s field, the sun is warming my back and there’s just a gentle breeze. The slight dip running across the field behind me is clearly visible from the shadows cast by the low winter sun. One hundred years ago today my great-great-uncle James was brought here, to the battle front, and stood very close to where I am now, tucked down in a trench, maybe even the one I’m stood in front of.
The German trenches would have been visible across the flat fields but stood here in the peace of today I am finding it hard to imagine the noise, the smell, the fear that surrounded this place a hundred years ago.
This would have been James’s last full living day. What on earth was he feeling, thinking, seeing? Could he imagine that he wouldn’t see the sun set tomorrow?
As I bend to place a poppy cross in the earth I see a lead bullet from a shell, I pick it up to take home as a memento. It’s most likely bullets like this one that caused James’s fatal wounds. I say goodbye to the Front Line of November1915 and head off to visit James’s grave, behind the lines and near to where the Field Hospital would have been.
The cemetery at Bailleul is quiet and beautifully kept. Row upon row of white headstone mark the last resting place for so many soldiers. I find James’s grave and finally give him his medals, a poppy wreath from the family and a photograph of himself in uniform.
Each side of him are men that died the same day, 13th November 1915… beside them, men who died the following day, and the day after… and the next.
I look up and nod thanks across to the cemetery gardeners who are tending the graves in the next row, who keep the place so tidy for these never-to-be-forgotten soldiers… these men and boys… these sons, brothers, fathers and uncles, who will still be here in another 100 years.
I leave James with his silent companions. I will be back to visit again one day.
All photos courtesy of Clare Chamberlain.