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Illingworth House: Chance Child, Part Two - 24

..."A un aviateur anglais, qui tombe pour notre liberte. Squadron Leader J.A.L.Illingworth. 25 Janvier 1945."...

Young John Illingworth accidentally comes upon a memorial to his air-ace father who lost his life in aerial combat over Belgium.

John Waddington-Feather continues his must-read tale of the joys and woes of a Yorkshire mill-owning family.

Two days later they all set out for Belgium on the second part of their holiday, putting up at a small hotel on the edge of the hautes fagnes. The hotel was an old-fashioned place, heavy with wood carving and stags' heads. It was Gothic through and through and the other residents were elderly, many German for the border was not far away.

John and Ann were aware time was running out before he joined the army, so they made the most of their stay. Most days they followed trails laid out by local naturalists and historians, in their element identifying the many flowers and new plants. Not long before they returned to England, they were hiking through some dense woodland following a trail from their map, which had on it sites named "Monument anglais." They wondered what these English monuments could be sited so deep in the forest. They decided to find out and left the main trail following an overgrown track.

Deeper and deeper they hiked into the woods, sweating profusely for the day was hot. At times they had to hack away brambles, which blocked their way, but they persevered and the further they went the quieter grew the forest. At length all birdsong stopped and only the whining insects and chirruping grasshoppers made any noise.

David looked at his map and said they were near the monument and sure enough, as they turned a bend, they noticed something in a small
clearing. They hurried on and saw a memorial-stone of some sort in the middle of a small copse of oak trees. Closer still, they realised it was a British war memorial. David reached it first and read the inscription. Then he turned with an odd look on his face. "John," he said quietly. "It's...it's..." he left his sentence unfinished for John was at his side reading it himself.

It read: "A un aviateur anglais, qui tombe pour notre liberte. Squadron Leader J.A.L.Illingworth. 25 Janvier 1945."

It took some moments for it to sink in and he reached for Ann's hand, saying nothing, too stunned to speak. It was Ann who spoke first, whispering, "It's your father, Johnnie! It's where he was shot down!"

David and the other girls stood back feeling almost like intruders. By now Ann had put her arm round him and felt him trembling. The only noise came from the ever-present insects whining about them; otherwise all was silent. He read and re-read the words hardly believing what he read. They seemed so unreal. Then the horror of what happened to his father impacted.

They came across more memorials to English and American air-crews who'd perished in those woods, but none affected him as much as his father's. A whole new understanding of his father welled inside him, and for the very first time he felt grief for the father he only vaguely remembered and whom he'd been taught to despise. His grandfather had told him years before what had happened, but it didn't register till now. It was as if John Illingworth was determined he should own him, should know he'd made the supreme sacrifice for his son. David's father had also been killed in action earlier in the war and was buried in a war cemetery in Kent among his own, visited by his widow and family. John Illingworth's grave was also in a war cemetery but in Belgium, alone and among strangers.

That night as he lay in bed, John imagined what it must have been like when his father died: the fear and horror, the flames as his plane ripped through the canopy of trees and burned away. There was no sign of it now. Nature had long healed the scars of war. Even the oaks planted by the caring villagers had outgrown the memorial.

John discovered later Sir Abe had visited his son's grave just after the war, but he knew nothing of the memorial at the crash site. It had been erected by Belgian historians, who'd pin-pointed all wartime crash sites and erected monuments. They were keen on recording history in that part of the world which had been fought over from time immemorial.

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