Tag Archives: Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Unknown Stories – a haibun

This is an example of a haibun, following on from yesterday’s post. The eldest (tallest) daughter is my grandmother. She isn’t holding his hand, as mentioned in the poem, but it is the last photograph. For more information see The Carus Brothers at War (Part 1), or The Carus Brothers at War (Part 2) or The Carus Brothers at War (Part 3).

It was first published in The Haibun Journal April 2022.

Unknown Stories

last photograph
in it my grandma holds
a soldier’s hand

In 1920 the Great War was over, but the grieving continued. The British Army exhumed four unidentified bodies from the major battle areas of the Great War. After four years of fighting there was no shortage of choice. There are differing stories about the secretive process, and nobody knows exactly what happened. However, we do know that on the night of 7th November 1920, a General, either blindfolded, or with his eyes closed, selected one of them.

That body became the most celebrated British soldier of the war – the Unknown Warrior. He lies in Westminster Abbey – the only tombstone in the Abbey where nobody is allowed to walk. He is buried with a Crusader’s sword, a gift from the King, in a coffin made from an oak tree that once grew at Hampton Court. The Americans gave him the Medal of Honor and, in 2020, his hundredth anniversary, the Poet Laureate wrote a poem for him.

The remaining three were reburied by the roadside under cover of darkness. They were eventually found by a Grave Registration Unit and moved to a cemetery, as were thousands of other wayside graves. For them, there was no grand ceremony, just a stone marked, like thousands of others, “Known unto God”.

a poppy cross
each year her eyes filled up
two minutes pass

Paths of Glory

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
         And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
         The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
I’ve just finished reading The Final Whistle: The Great War in Fifteen Players . I bought it last week when I was supposedly getting rid of some books at the Oxfam shop. It is, as you may be able to guess from the title, a book about the Great War and rugby. I’m not one of those people who can quote details of Divisions and battles and all that stuff but I do have an interest in the subject, and I also like rugby.
As a result, I am now motivated to finish a post I began after visiting Southwell Minster. For me, the most interesting part of the visit is the original wooden grave marker of Major J P Becher. It’s on the wall of the graveyard at the east end of the Minster, and I always worry that one day it will disintegrate.
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Original wooden grave marker at Southwell Minster

In this case, Major Becher is commemorated in many other places, as are his brothers-in-law. The brothers-in-law were both killed on the day that Becher suffered his fatal wounds. He lived on for another ten weeks before finally dying, having been too badly injured to be sent home from France.
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Grave marker – Major J P Becher

His son, as seen from the small cross in the picture, died in the Second World War.
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Father and son

Families were allowed to have the original wooden grave markers returned to them when the permanent stone markers were erected, though I’m not sure how many actually applied for them. I imagine that although it represented closure for many families, it was far too painful for others.
One of my great grandmothers, having lost a son and a son-in-law and seen two other sons seriously injured, refused to even to discuss the war. Another one, having been widowed and left with three young daughters, died in the TB hospital in Lancaster five years after the death of her husband.
It was International Women’s Day yesterday, so it might be appropriate to spend a moment thinking about the women in this story, who also suffered in the war, though nobody erected a memorial to them.
The above link to my great grandmother’s headstone was a complete surprise to me. I was going to add CWGC details but browsed a few others and found that. Though I’ve been in that church and graveyard several times in the past I never thought to look for family gravestones at the time and it was on the list of “things to do”.
That’s the wonder of the web, and a whole new post.