I’m thinking of you, Card sent home by great-uncle Arthur
One hundred years ago, my grand-father’s only brother died in the mud in Flanders. He was 19 years old when he fell on 17 December 1915. We can imagine what Christmas must have been like for his parents and fourteen year old brother.
Arthur James William Wells was the elder son of James Joseph Wells, a foreman at Erith Docks on the river Thames and Annie, née Saunders (‘Lovely and ‘ot, Daisy’, which is what she used to say to my grandmother at Sunday lunch). My grandfather, Stanley Lewis Wells, was four years younger (1901-1984), too young to go to the Great War that claimed his elder brother and too old for the Second World War, which saw his elder son, Arthur Lewis Wells (born 1923), my father, in uniform. Granddad named my father and my uncle James (1930-1995) after his lost brother and father.
My father still has my grandfather’s copy of The Erithian, the magazine of the Erith County School from May 1916, which has an obituary of great-uncle Arthur:
Once again it is our sad duty to record the loss of one of our Old Boys, the fourth to lay down his life for his King and country. Arthur Wells was one of the best sportsmen we have ever known and naturally he was one of the first to enlist on the outbreak of war. His love of danger and excitement led him to join the Hussars, and he went through his training as a cavalryman. He would certainly have been one of the best had he ever had the opportunity of showing how well he had profited by his training. But the way in which warfare developed made the cavalry arm of the Service of very little immediate utility, and he was drafted into the 3rd Batt. King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, with whom he was serving when he met his death a short while ago.
Though only in his twentieth year, his splendid physique made him a notable figure in any company. A natural athlete, he excelled in whatever branch of sport he took up, and was one of the best footballers – he played full-back – and beyond doubt the best cricketer the School has produced. He might have reached high honours in either of these games had he been spared to us. But far finer than his playing abilities was the truly sporting spirit in which he played. A mean action or an unfair advantage never entered the mind of Arthur Wells. He was indeed a true, manly Englishman, than which nothing finer can be said of him. We deplore his loss, both for our own and for his country’s sake.
He entered the School in September 1908, and left to start work at Messrs. Cory’s Engineering Works, Erith, in December, 1911. His School career, though not of remarkable brilliance, was in every sense one to be proud of, and his sterling worth endeared him to fellow pupils and staff alike. He was one of the most valued members of the Green House, for whom he always did yeoman service, and his housemates felt with special keenness the sadness of his loss.
Photograph of great-granddad James, great-grandma Annie and granddad Stanley, Belgium 1919.
The only time my great-grand-parents, James and Annie left England, was in 1919, when they followed their son from the outskirts of London and travelled to Poperinge, not far from Ypres on the Belgian side of the border with France. There they visited his grave at the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.
In 2000, I moved to Brussels to work for the European Union. It had been a long held ambition, motivated by my upbringing and the family memories passed down of the disruption, loss and fear that the two world wars had wreaked. International reconciliation and understanding was essential to rebuild shattered Europe. Growing up in the 1960s, the European ideal of hope and shared destiny was exciting and comforting. My elder sister learned German and went on Christian youth work camps in Germany in the late 1960s, inviting her international friends one Christmas to our house in Wimbledon. My younger sister and I revelled in being spoilt by these lovely Dutch, French and German students who spoke fascinating languages. In 1971 the introduction of decimal currency in the UK and then our accession to the European Economic Community in 1973 were historic landmarks that had a profound impact on my generation, helping us to integrate with our European neighbours, providing opportunities to travel freely across the continent (the Western part, at least) that had been denied to my parents’ and grandparents’ generations in their youth. In 1979 I went to live and work in France for the first time, as an English language assistant in a provincial secondary school. Being a foreigner, I was only allowed a bank account in convertible Francs and the only money I could deposit in it was my salary.
I read French at university and went to live and work in Paris after graduation and spent some 15 years there. It was as translator that I moved to Brussels and there that I acquired my first television set and my first car. The television was important. In Brussels I was able to watch the BBC and in July 2000 was very moved by a report on the commemoration ceremony of the massacre of the Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica. The wives, mothers and daughters of the men who had been victims of Europe’s worst massacre since World War II struck me with their dignity and determination, but I also felt viscerally puzzled as to why they would want to visit the mass graves that were the locus of their grief and suffering. It was the visit to pay my respects to great-uncle Arthur that helped me understand.
The car was not so important, but useful. Paul and Philip, two English friends living in Brussels, accompanied me one Sunday on the drive to Poperinge in Western Flanders near the French border. Without too much trouble we found the Military Cemetery at Lijssenthoek. Beautifully looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the rows of white gravestones commemorate some 10,000 burials. Unable to locate my great-uncle’s grave, I returned to the monumental red-brick gatehouse, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, where I found a little alcove cupboard, closed by a neat metal door. Inside was a ledger with the names of the fallen and a plan of the cemetery. Turning the pages to the letter W, I soon found the entry, which has since been digitised and made available online, for WELLS, ARTHUR JAMES. It made me shudder to read:
In Memory of
ARTHUR JAMES WELLS
23597, 6th Bn., King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry who died on 17 December 1915 Age 19
Son of James J. and Annie E. Wells, of 23, Thanet Rd., Erith, Kent.
Thanet Road in Erith is just around the corner from Lesney Park Road where my father was born, where my grand-parents lived when I was little and where we held the reception after Uncle James’s funeral in 1995. Connecting those streets on the slope rising up from the Thames to this flat field in Flanders, it all suddenly became so real; it wasn’t a story read in a book, but this 19-year old boy, who looked in photographs just like my father, was family, buried in the ground here. When I located the headstone I had another shudder, as the inscription read, AJ WELLS, the same initials as my eldest brother, Andrew Joseph. I felt for granddad, what feelings must have gone through him when he stood here in 1919, eighty-one years earlier. Then I began to understand, with all due proportion and respect, why the Bosnian women visited the mass graves at Srebrenica; the dead create a connection with place. I had family buried in Belgium.
Rupert Brooke, the young poet who wrote The Solider, an evocative poem about the First World War, death and place, also died that same year, in 1915.
If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
There’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England. This place, this cemetery in Flanders was and is part of my family story. Standing there with my two friends I felt glad and grateful that my parents’ generation had put the war behind them and created an environment in which I was free to travel and work and enjoy life in the European Union of then 15 Member States. Indeed, I was working for a Frenchman, whose boss in turn was German and my colleagues in the ‘minestrone’ translation department were a jolly mixture of all the nationalities.
A family story
Our European history is a family story and it is still essential that we remember the tens of millions of our family members, like my great-uncle Arthur, whose lives were claimed by an ultimately useless, futile war. Their untimely deaths were the result of the international political elites’ failure to communicate and cooperate, what Christopher Clark has called ‘sleepwalking’ (The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914). Today, we need to be mindful of history when we consider our relationship with our friends and neighbours in Europe and wary of the mythologizing of independence. Our European story is a family story that goes back hundreds of years, so much so that by the 19th Century the crowned heads of Europe were closely-related members of the same family. Christopher Clark reminds us, in a London Review of Books article, of the kinship links between Nicky, Willy and George, respectively, the Russian Czar, German Kaiser and British king.
By the turn of the 20th century, the genealogical web of Europe’s reigning families had thickened almost to the point of fusion. Wilhelm II and George V were both grandsons of Queen Victoria. Tsar Nicholas II’s wife, Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt, was Victoria’s granddaughter. The mothers of George V and Nicholas II were sisters from the house of Denmark. Wilhelm and Nicholas II were both great-great-grandsons of Tsar Paul I. The Kaiser’s great-great-aunt, Charlotte of Prussia, was the Tsar’s grandmother. Viewed from this perspective, the outbreak of war in 1914 looks rather like the culmination of a family feud.
At the beginning of the 20th century, however, not everybody was asleep to the dangers of war. In ‘The World of Yesterday’, the memoir written and published shortly before his suicide in exile in 1942 during World War II, Stefan Zweig describes his friendship with the French writer, pacifist and 1915 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Romain Rolland. For Zweig, Rolland was the ‘man who would be the conscience of Europe in its time of crisis’. Rolland wrote an anti-war manifesto Above the Battle (Au-dessus de la Mêlée), moved to Switzerland where he worked for the Red Cross in Geneva and pleaded for international reconciliation.
Rolland is one of the many who believe, […], that the spiritual forces that are important and ought to prevail are the international ones; that co-operation, not war, is the right destiny of nations; and that all that is valuable in each people may be maintained in and by friendly intercourse with the others. The war between these two ideals is the greater war that lies behind the present conflict.
In 2015, one hundred years after great-uncle Arthur died in the mud in Flanders, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, and the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer issued a warning that the world is at a turning point and appealed for urgent and concrete action to address human suffering and insecurity.
Rest in peace, Arthur James William Wells. Gone, but not forgotten.