Quoth the Raven Nevermore.
There are times as I sit in my study, usually later in the evening, I feel a bit like the narrator in Poe’s “The Raven”
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
''Tis some visitor,' I muttered, 'tapping at my chamber door-
Only this, and nothing more.'
The exception being that the raven in my case is a Nazi eagle desk ornament and the “forgotten lore” attestation papers of Canadian and British servicemen of the First World War. Perhaps it is advancing age that makes me more pensive, or simply maudlin, but I start to think about these people listed on the official documents more deeply than simply an addition to the seemingly ever-growing collection. I look at the drawers and drawers (literally drawers and drawers) of medals and the filing cabinet of documents, some supporting the medals collection and some standing as the only record of passed souls and think how much this is like a morgue. The last repository of the earthly remains of soldiers long past. Walls festooned with weapons, the tools of war wielded by men much braver than me and think that it is a shame that this may be all there is left of these heroes.
In some rare cases I have been put in the position of being the custodian of almost all of the family history of a soldier; past into my keeping by people who no longer care about their own roots. A sad comment on humanity as a person without knowledge of their roots is like a ship without a rudder. Still, this lack of concern on their part has allowed me to get to know some of the soldiers on a much deeper level than a simple engraved medal or statistics on an attestation document.
One case involves two brothers who both went to war; one married the other a single man. As fate would have it the married brother never returned. The unmarried brother returned and took over the duties of his brother raising the children and looking after his brother’s wife until the end of their years well into their eighties. One may look upon this today as being a bit odd but it was a different time and responsibility for others seen in a different light. If you were to see the photo of them sitting by the seaside well into their eighties, a true loving couple, you would not criticize their decision. In fact what right do any of us have to pass judgement on those who went through the horrors of the Great War and suffered the grief and losses they experienced?
Another case deals with brothers-in-law, one starting in the Royal Garrison Artillery in 1914 and then being killed in 1918 while serving with the Bedfordshire Regiment. The other, a younger man, earned his Aviation Certificate as a Lieutenant in 1918 and flew as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. After the War he became an aviation engineer designing and developing aircraft through World War Two and well beyond.
The last I will mention in this article concerns a gentleman whose failing marriage found him living in a hotel when he enlisted. Some of the first photos of him, in the collection, show him at work as a mason. Later on we see him just as he arrives in England. In later photos one can see the effect the war is having on him. He is no longer the healthy-looking young man but a gaunt worn out old chap who will die shortly after the last photo that was taken in 1917. Letters to his son and beloved daughter bear no mention of their mother, his estranged wife, a harbinger of the resentment and hatred that was festering in her that would later be spread to the children resulting in their rejection of his very memory. She may have held a great deal of animosity toward her husband however it is evident by the government documentation that this did not extend to her acceptance of the war widows pension. As the years past and the children aged the amount of the pension decreased as did any feelings of good will toward our poor soldier even from his children and eventually his grand children. I purchased his Memorial Cross and BWM from his grand-daughter and then received boxes and boxes of photos and documents dating back well into the mid 1800’s, at no extra cost. The choice I had was to either accept the material or it was going to the land fill (garbage).
In some cases my study has become the repository of the only memories left of these lost souls with me being its curator. Stories cut short by war, others prevented from the opportunity to correct their mistakes in life and other paths changed forever. Stories once investigated, beyond the veneer of the serving soldier, into the deeper aspect of these real people and their personal trials and tribulations begins to forge a bond between researcher and subject. They become a true part of your life and to write their stories brings up a conflict somewhere between the desires to honour their memory and betrayal of a confidence shared.
Looking back at the German eagle stand-in for Poe’s Raven I can’t help but hope its famous statement is a prophecy regarding war - “Nevermore”.
Quoth the Raven Nevermore.