This is a picture of my Great Uncle Harry Lawer. Almost 96 years ago, in the final weeks of World War I, he was killed in action at Havrincourt, during the Battle of the Canal du Nord, and is buried at Sanders Keep Military Cemetery along with 150 of his comrades. He held the rank of sergeant in the Coldstream Guards and had been awarded the Military Medal and bar in previous actions. He died unmarried and without children. His brother, William, was in the Lancashire Fusiliers, and survived the war.
These are the only facts I know about my Great Uncle. When I was a young girl, I remember my Grandmother taking me to see the war memorial where his name had been carved. It was in a beautiful setting – rolling parkland, with the Lancashire hills rising behind it. There were roses and sunshine, birds singing and a palpable sense of peace about the place. I like to think that if the spirits of the dead ever revisit our mortal plane, that small garden of remembrance is where Harry will come, not to the wasteland of a French battlefield, but to the familiar hills of the home he died to protect.
Some years ago, I drove down through France, taking back roads to avoid traffic. I crossed the Somme, and passed through villages where military cemeteries took up more space than the surrounding homes. The sheer numbers of beautifully tended rows of white crosses honour the fallen and stand as a terrible indictment of the war that claimed them. I saw no old trees, no ancient woodlands, just rolling fields of corn ripening to the colour of honey in the sun. They say there are still bones turned up by the rhythm of the plough.
I think about Harry more than any other ancestor I know about. I think this is because he died so young and without issue. I wonder what he would have thought of his brother’s family. I am an only child of an only child, but with my children and grandchildren the family numbers are expanding at last. Like the new French trees, perhaps we will grow into a substantial woodland one day.
I’ve heard it said that no-one really dies while someone remembers their name. It occurred to me that by writing this post I could perpetuate his memory, bring him back to life in an age of instant communication that he couldn’t have even dreamed was possible. That I can write these, or any other words that can be viewed publicly; that I can express my thoughts honestly, without fear; that I have freedoms and rights that are an integral part of my life; all this tracks back to Harry and all the other soldiers who have ever taken up arms in the name of freedom. That’s not a political statement, it’s a personal one. I look at Harry’s photograph and I see a young, idealistic man, fulfilling the most basic of imperatives – the need to protect the people and the way of life he loved. He didn’t just give up his life – he sacrificed his could-have-been family, the wife who never knew his soft looks and the touch of his hands, the children he never rocked to sleep or watched with pride in his eyes as they grew to adulthood.
War is a terrible thing. We look back on the war to end all wars and see that it was only a prelude to other wars, other horrors. We see the futility of so many deaths, on both sides. But looking into Harry’s eyes in that fading sepia photograph, I see life and courage and pride, and I will be forever grateful for his sacrifice. I hope, wherever he is now, he still feels that pride when he looks at the world he tried to save, the freedoms he fought for. Stand easy, Harry. Stand easy.