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Lansdowne Crescent: Chapter 36

Another of the close group of Worcester neighbours dies in the brutal and bloody World War.

Jean Day continues her account of the lives of people who lived in a Worcester crescent in the early part of the Twentieth Century. To read earlier chapters please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/lansdowne_crescent/


Mother, on coming into the drawing-room at the beginning of this year, found her small grandchild Betty with hands clasped behind her gazing up with great earnestness at her uncles' photographs.

‘I'm thinking about Uncle Frank and Uncle Charlie,’ she announced.

‘Are you, darling? What are you thinking?’

‘I am thinking of them in heaven, playing with God and the angels. But,’ with a wistful look, ‘I do wish my Uncle Pete could play with me.’

So Peter, our last remaining brother returned to the fighting in France. Most of the time he was quartered somewhere round Ypres, and his time seems to have been taken up in much the same way as it was in Grantham, either taking courses or giving them. In almost his last letter he writes: ‘I have just discovered I have to take a class for backward men.’

He wrote regularly during the months he was out, and very cheerfully. His letters give the impression that he had a far less unpleasant time than he did when he was out before, and till the very end he seems to have seen little fighting.

He experienced some difficulty in grappling with the intricacies of the French tongue, and tells one or two amusing stories about himself. On one occasion he was one of a party who entered a canteen in the hopes of getting a drink. Courage failing the rest of the party, Peter boldly volunteered to make himself understood by a good-looking damsel standing in a corner. So in execrable French and with much gesticulation he stammered out: ‘Mamselle, voulez vouch, that is, est-ce que, what I mean to say is, beer, voire, drink, manger.’ She let him finish, and then answered in excellent English: ‘I think we shall understand each other better if we both talk our native tongue. I am English too!’

Of a certain voluble landlady he wrote: ‘My landlady has at last come to the conclusion that if she wants me to understand anything she must speak at the rate of one word a minute, or better still, write it down.’ It reminds one of Frank, who once spent a whole afternoon coming to an understanding about the price of a chicken.

The last letter we had from Peter was from the neighbourhood of Ypres, and as he had no friends in his company we cannot tell exactly what his movements were at the last. But apparently, in the disastrous retreat to Amiens, help from all parts of the line was sent for, and Pete's company was among those that moved south. As commander of a section of machine guns his work was to help in covering the retreat of the infantry, and in supervising this work on the very first day of the retreat he was hit on the head by a. shell, and died instantly. It was the 24th of March.

He was not quite twenty-four, a short life as years go, and yet he left his mark on his world as many a longer life has not. Of him, too, can we say, as was said of Rupert Brooke, ‘He has gone to where he came from; but if anyone left the world richer by passing through it, it was he.’

He would, I feel sure, have felt deeply the truth of the following words, written to his parents after his death by an old friend of the family, and which, as it were, sums up his idea of the depths of the sacrifice of parenthood.

‘Lately,’ writes the friend, ‘I have come rather to doubt the use of prayers for the safety of loved ones concerned in the war, but feel that our prayers that they might have courage, that their self-sacrificing spirit might ennoble them, have been abundantly answered. No one has ever plumbed the depth of childhood, and it is only in glimpses of light and inspiration that we now and then obtain into the meanings and wonders of these great relationships that enable us to rise to the consolation of the Fatherhood of God, who, doubt it not, loves a thousand times more than even father or mother can.’

While the great truths of Christianity became as it were thus vitalised for him, he began to feel restive under the trammels of organised Christianity as he knew it. When he joined up he was still a loyal son of the English Church, but during the three years which followed he gradually came to view it rather differently. The official attitude of the Church in holding back the clergy from going forth to take their part in the great struggle side by side with the other sons of the Empire at first grieved and finally angered him. He realised with many of us the almost suicidal mistake thus made. ‘If the Church of England wants to commit suicide, she's going jolly well the right way about it,’ he once exclaimed angrily when specially stirred upon the subject. The knowledge of the untold good which has been done by French priests fighting side by side with the ‘Poilu’ made him feel all the more sad when he thought of the great opportunity thus lost to the English Church. And again, another cause of sadness was what seemed to him the utter breakdown in the organisation of the Church of England's Chaplains’ Department in regard to the men's spiritual welfare. In the last letter we had from him three days before he fell he says: ‘I'm afraid there are very few parsons out here who do much good. Somehow or other they never seem to take much interest in our welfare, spiritual or otherwise, apart from holding parade services on Sunday. I think that they have missed just about the greatest opportunity they are ever likely to have to show their worth.’

He knew, as men who come daily and hourly face to face with death must know, how false have been the values which we have hitherto put on the things of this world. From the brink of Eternity he wrote the following ‘Reflections on the War.’ They are hastily and loosely put together. One can appreciate the difficulties of any consecutive thinking with which he had to contend, but they give us a very clear idea of how he viewed the world struggle in which he was so soon to fall.


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