We're Here Because We're Here, A soldier's death in Vieille-Chapelle, September 1915
It was the song they sang as they marched to the trenches. "We're Here Because We're Here." It was sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, a sardonic joke sung in full-throated defiance of death. "We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here."
But underlying that song there is a question: a question to which the song gives no answer, stark in its simplicity. "Why are we here?"
In the following article CJ Stone attempts to answer the question, not for every man who died, but for one man at least.
There's a grainy old sepia photograph of him standing in front of a shop. He's maybe 12 or 13 years old, wearing a flat cap and a donkey jacket with leather patches on the shoulders, with knee-length breeches and woollen socks, with these huge shiny black leather clod-hoppers on his feet. They are far too big for him, clogs rather than shoes, with wooden soles turned up at the toe. The clothes are functional and sturdy, heavy duty work-clothes. A Miner's uniform.
Perhaps they are his new work clothes. Perhaps he's just about to start his first job, down the pit. He was the right age.
He's got one hand in front of him, the thumb hovering around his waistcoat pocket as if he's about to hook it in; the other hand is tucked into his jacket as if he's about to take something out. He's leaning on the windowsill, one leg cocked forward, totally at his ease, with this cheeky look on his face, grinning broadly at the camera from under the brim of his cap, which is pulled down tight over his ears. It's obviously the fashion. A young boy with a cheeky-monkey grin on the threshold of his future with everything to look forward to. Within six years he would be dead.
His name is Ivor Coles, and the picture was taken sometime in the early 1900s - 1908 or 1909 - and he died of wounds sometime in September 1915 near a town called Vieille-Chapelle in France on the Western Front. Killed in action.
He had an older brother, Richard Coles. Richard was also stationed on the Western Front, but survived. He later married, Lily May. Lily May lived on till she was over a hundred. It is Lily May who is the thread who holds this story together.
As it turns out, if you look at the dates, Ivor must have been underage when he joined up. He was born on the 24th June 1897. He was less than three months into his eighteenth year when he died so he must have joined the army before the proper age of recruitment at 18. Also, according to Richard - who would tell the story in later years - Ivor was only a few days away from moving to Richard's regiment, on compassionate grounds. The British Army usually allowed members of the same family to serve together. But then the big push came, the move never happened, and Ivor Coles died as a private in the 9th Battalion of the Welch Regiment (sic).
There's not a lot more you can say about him. He died anonymously, another anonymous death in a war where death was the norm, routine and unavoidable. A conveyor belt of death. A death factory in full-production.
The Crown Jewels
Years later Richard went back to find him. He scoured the cemeteries of the Western Front looking for his name, but it wasn't there. He thought he saw it on the Menim Gate, where all the missing are listed. The one's without bodies. The one's whose bodies had been blown to bits, smashed and pulped into a goulash soup and absorbed into the Earth. There was one name there which resembled his brother's. Ivan Coles rather than Ivor. Maybe they just got the spelling wrong. Anyhow, it was enough to satisfy Richard, enough for him to say to himself, "well I've found my brother now," to pay his respects and then to leave.
And that's how the story stood. An old story. As old as time. As old as history. One of those stories that most families are familiar with, like a thread from the past left dangling in the present. A story without an end or without resolution, like a detective novel with the last pages missing.
Later again Richard's granddaughter, Vanessa, went to the Menim gate to check the story out, scanning the thousands of names to find the one that her grandfather had seen. It wasn't there. There was no I. Coles listed on the Menim Gate..
So the mystery deepened. Ivor Coles had just sort of disappeared from history, lost without a trace. He had no grave, no memorial, nothing to mark his passing in the great river of time, nothing to show that he had ever been here, that he had ever mattered. Nothing but an old grainy photograph tucked away in a biscuit tin in someone's bottom drawer, all-but forgotten.
Except for Lily May, that is. Lily May who had married Ivor's brother. Richard sometimes spoke about him, about his lost brother, and Lily May always remembered this, even after Richard had died.
That's how the thread of history is kept alive. It's in the minds of the living. In the minds of the people who remember. Lily May never met Ivor Coles, but she shared his surname, and she remembered the stories her beloved husband had told her about their childhood together in South Wales, remembered even when she was a hundred years old and had great-great grandchildren who would play around her ankles while she snoozed away her last few months, delicate and brittle like an old clock.
And who was Ivor Coles anyway? His life was so short it could hardly have impacted on this Earth. He was here, and then he was gone, along with a whole generation of young men. He left no progeny. He left no mark. He added little to the world's store. Had he lived he would have gone back to being a Miner, feeding the power industry with his sweat and his muscle, digging the coal deep underground. But he never went back. And who's to say? Maybe he never even fired a shot while he was on the frontline. Maybe his only contribution to the factory of death was his own body, swallowed by the mud in the mangled Earth.
But Lily May had a secret. All those years she kept it. It was a tightly wrapped bundle which went everywhere with her. From the South Wales Valleys where she started out, to the Wealds of Kent, where the family eventually settled, Miner following Miner across the landscape of Britain in the search for work, Miner's families following on behind. And that's how Lily May got here with her bundle.
It was a simple brown paper bundle, tightly wrapped in Sellotape, wrapped and wrapped, tighter than a Nun's wimple and containing just as many secrets. She called it the Crown Jewels. "Don't open it till something happens to me," she'd say, in her broad South Wales accent. "That there's very precious." And she'd brandish it about with a flourish, with a twinkle, enjoying the mystery. Everyone thought it must contain diamonds at least. Or pearls. Gold and silver. Ancient artefacts from the mysterious East.
It turned out to be mainly paper. Little more. Nothing of obvious value. So it was passed on to Warren, Vanessa's brother, as the family historian after Lily May died. "Here," they said. "You might like this."
And it was in here that Warren found the clues that lead us back to Ivor: to finding him again.
How to lose a human being
The bundle was full of paper. Old faded sheets of time, folded, brown and musty with age. The usual things. Birth certificates. Death certificates. Marriage certificates. People's wills. Most of it was hardly surprising. But there were a couple of new things in there: one a verification notice, sent to Richard and Ivor's parents, John and Rhoda, by the War Graves commission. It contained the name of a cemetery, with a plot number, a row and a grave number, plus an army number, only it was made out in the name of T. Coles giving the date of his death as the 25th of September 1915.
"T" rather than "I".
A simple clerical error, a typing error. You take the bottom off an "I" and it looks like a "T".
That's all it takes to lose a human being. A typing error.
It was a printed form part filled in in pencil. You were supposed to correct the details and send them back. Only no one ever did.
Later Warren checked the army number against an identity disc which they'd found behind the glass in a picture frame tucked behind a wardrobe in Lily May's house. The picture was of Lily May's brother, but the identity disc was Ivor's.
The number on the verification document and the number on the disc matched. They'd found the whereabouts of Ivor's grave at last. All the information was on the document.
And there was something else in the bundle too, something even more precious.
The bundle didn't contained jewellery, but it contained a work of art.
It was a small package, the size of a man's outstretched hand, wrapped in brown paper. Inside the brown paper, a yellowing cotton cloth, and inside that a layer of tissue paper. And inside the tissue paper, wrapped up like a sacred relic, like Tutankhamen's remains, there lay a simple chalk cross.
It's about nine inches by seven. The cross is carved from a single lump of chalk, possibly with a penknife. The rear side of the object is a plain, smoothed surface, but on the other side the cross stands out in relief from a flat background, resting upon a plinth of steps. It is meant to be displayed in an upright position, facing forward to give the impression of a cemetery cross standing upon a platform of ascending steps.
And all across the cross, in elaborate, ornate, copperplate lettering, in ink, using a fountain pen, written so that they too form the shape of a cross, are the following words :
RIP In Loving Memory of Private Ivor Coles Killed In Action At Givenchy FRANCE Sept 15 1915.
He Gave His
Life England's Honour to Save
Now he Lies
in a Soldier's Grave.
It is poignant in its simplicity. This plain, simple cross made from the bones of the soil, from the very chalk landscape that had swallowed Ivor's body, that had drank his blood and consumed his flesh, maybe even from the trench in which he lay shivering, afraid, in the muck, with the stench of death in the air, just before he was sent over the top to be chewed up by the teeth of the guns in No Man's Land, snared upon a wire to die, to give up his young life for some abstract cause; this cross carved with slow care and dedication in the weeks and months following by a comrade-in-arms, by a man who had watched him die perhaps, and who had wrenched this lump of rock from the living earth and carved it in his memory, so that Ivor's name would not be forgotten. "In Loving Memory," he wrote. He meant every word of it.
How to find a human being
This was the great secret that Lily May had kept all these years, wrapped up in a bundle, a memorial to her long-lost brother-in-law, a message from history.
Not that this cross or this bundle answer all of the questions. In fact they bring to light new ones.
There are discrepancies. The dates, for a start. The cross has it that he died on the 15th of September, while the verification document delays it until the 25th.
Perhaps he was wounded on the 15th and died in hospital ten days later on the 25th. Except that there was a big offensive on the 25th - the so-called 2nd Battle of Loos - in which Ivor's regiment took part. Before that an uneasy stalemate had existed across the front line, an eerie peace broken only by the occasional skirmish. On the 25th thousands of men had died, mown down by the enemy guns, or gassed by their own side, or blown to smithereens by the artillery-fire while ducking for cover in No Man's Land. It was much more likely to be that day. Or perhaps he had taken part in a skirmish on the 15th, been killed by a sniper's bullet, but in the mass of deaths ten days later, in the confusion of slaughter, this one lone private's death had got muddled up.
Who knows? It's a mystery.
And then, the other great mystery. Why, when he received the verification document didn't Ivor's father return it with the amended information, the "I" instead of the "T" and acknowledge his son's resting place?
What father wouldn't want to know the place of his son's burial?
Perhaps he couldn't read?
And why was the location of Ivor's grave kept hidden, even from his own brother?
Mysteries on mysteries, and questions to which we will probably never have answers. But it's the questions that bring Ivor to life again. It's as if, in the anonymity of his death he planted a seed. A seed in history. And in the moment of remembering Ivor Coles, so-long forgotten, we remember all the others who died in that carnage - the War to End All Wars - and in that moment, too, remember the futility of war, its meaninglessness, and by that give meaning to Ivor Coles' death.
So, after 90 years the family had finally found the burial place of Great Uncle Ivor. All of the information was on the War Graves Commission letter, and in 2006 Warren and Vanessa and their respective partners went to lay a wreath of poppies on his grave, to pay their respects.
They had solved the mystery and brought Ivor Coles back into the bosom of their family once more.
Now all that is needed is to get the grave re-carved so that it reads I. Coles instead of T. Coles, as it should. When that day comes there will be a dedication ceremony at the grave.
Lily May would be proud.
Richard Coles and Lily May
Five generations at Lily May's 100th birthday party
© 2008 Christopher James Stone