A full century since her great-grandfather died on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, Jenny Shelton imagines what she’d say to him if she could.
At some point, you’ve probably been asked the question: “Who would you choose if you could meet anyone from history?”
Lots of people probably spring to mind: Shakespeare, Elizabeth I, Einstein, Churchill… But great writers, monarchs and leaders would probably be pretty intimidating. They say never meet your heroes, especially if there’s a chance they’ll chop off your head.
This thought experiment popped into my head one day last autumn while walking round Paxton Pitts nature reserve in Cambridgeshire. The sun was bright and low and the leaves were turning. I felt full of the joys of life and suddenly thought that the person I’d best like to have a conversation with wouldn’t be a famous icon but someone from my own family.
On July 1, 1916, my great-grandfather William Gordon was one of more than 19,000 men who heard the whistle, climbed out of a muddy trench and slowly walked towards their deaths on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. They walked because they’d been told a week of heavy shelling by the British artillery would have wiped out the Germans in the trenches opposite, some just shouting distance away. We know now that wasn’t true.
“A postcard he sent home read: “Take care of wee Georgie, Mary and wee Hannah.” I think he knew he wouldn’t come home again.”
William, a sergeant with the Royal Irish Fusiliers, had been home on leave shortly before the battle. His oldest son, George, was five, Mary was two and Hannah, my Grandma, just a baby. I only recently saw a postcard he sent home afterwards, which read: “Take care of wee Georgie, Mary and wee Hannah.” I think he knew he wouldn’t come home again.
In 2001, I visited his grave in Beaumont-Hamel Cemetery, France, on a school trip. I had in my hand a newspaper clipping, from the 1980s, in which an old lady had been interviewed about her father, who survived the Somme. He had spoken of seeing a wounded sergeant lying in the battlefield, and how he had gone over to help him. The sergeant had ordered him to go on and leave him behind. He was the last person to see my great grandfather alive.
If I could somehow meet William – perhaps infiltrate and calm his tormented dreams the night before the battle – I’d tell him that yes, he would die here, aged 27 (the age my own brother, a Lieutenant, is now). But his youngest daughter, my beloved Grandma, would live to be 96. She’d sing soprano in their local choir and be excellent at hockey. Then she’d cross the Irish sea to England and have two healthy boys of her own, who’d be the light of her life.
She’d see man fly to the moon, toast the millennium with her family in peacetime and leave a legacy of happy, healthy grandchildren who’d never known poverty or war and who, on July 1, 2016, would remember their great-grandfather with pride, before continuing to stride towards their own, bright futures.3533 Views
Jenny is a writer and displaced northerner who has danced, baked, flown planes and hugged giant seals in the name of journalism. She is also a secret birdwatcher, serial book-buyer and sucker for a Sunday night costume drama.