Saturday, 10 November 2012

11 November

This is the story of two young men.

Cousins - or if you want to be precise, second cousins because the grandmother of one and the grandfather of the other were siblings.

The first was born in Lincolnshire in the year 1895.  His parents named him Leslie James Denman. He was their first child.

The second was born in Nottinghamshire in the year 1898.  He already had two brothers and his parents named him Will.  Not William.  Will.

Leslie's father was the Vicar of Gainsborough.

Will's father was an electrical engineer who specialised in the theatre.  When Will was still a baby, the family moved to Staffordshire, taking up residence in the town of Stoke-on-Trent.

Both boys grew up within a loving family.  Both went to school.  Both had friends and fights and adventures.

Leslie had a good life at St. Edwards.  Excelling in sports, he was a member of the School's Cricket XI and Rugby Football XV, in both of which he 'gained his colours'.  Fond of amateur dramatics, he had taken part in various theatrical events staged by his father at Gainsborough. In 1913, aged eighteen, he left school and became an undergraduate at Christ's College, Cambridge.

This photograph of Christ's College, Cambridge comes from Wikimedia Commons
In 1913 Will had presumably finished school.  Unlike Leslie, his is a hidden life and we know little although I am told he wanted to become an engineer like his father and elder brother, Arthur Llewelyn.

The cousins had an ancestor who had fought at the Battle of Waterloo.
The story handed down about him was that in the aftermath of the battle, he wandered the battlefield and later declared to the family that after Waterloo there would never be another battle because humanity could not, and would not, put up with such another huge loss of life.  From that point on no members of the family joined the military and the family directed its talents to the arts and to the mercantile world instead.

All this changed however in the 1914, when what was known as the 'Great War' began and the lives of the majority of young men and women throughout the world, changed forever.

At University, Leslie joined the Officers Training Corp.  He was gazetted in September of 1914 and joined the Lincolnshire Regiment.  His father accepted this with a heavy heart.

Leslie entered the 'Theatre of War' in February of 1915, with his battalion.  Thanks to his training he was now a Lieutenant however a few months later he caught enteric fever (a form of typhoid) and invalided home.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that none of the family had lived in Wales for many years, Will's father was fearlessly proud of his aristocratic Welsh heritage.  Were they not descended from the Wild Knight of Caer Howel?
Will's father had tried in vain to gain back the ancestral lands on the Welsh borders, pending large amounts of money in the process.  Now was his chance for his sons to follow in the ancestors' footsteps and he directed them to join the Welsh Regiment, as his own brother Henry had done.
Will was young.  In 1914 he was just sixteen years of age.  He decided to join the Army Cycling Corps instead but when this was disbanded he too joined the Welsh Regiment.  He was now a Private in the 16th Battalion.

This Photograph of Soldiers in northern France during WWI comes from Wikimedia Commons.
Late in 1915, having completed his training, Will also entered the 'Theatre of War'.

After a few months of recuperation, Leslie returned to his regiment in October 1915 and received a promotion.  He was now a Captain.  His scholarly younger brother Aubrey had also joined up, becoming a Lieutenant.

Will remained a Private.  His service number was 40660.  He marched.  He used his gun: His weapon of war.

In December of 1915 Leslie was sent to Egypt.

In Europe the enemy were using poison gas.  In April of that year they had launched chlorine gas against Canadian troops in the Second Battle of Ypres.  This was the first time gas has been used as weapon in this war. The result was horrible.

Leslie returned to the nightmare that was the Western Front, in February of 1916.  He was stationed with his men near Mont St. Eloi in northern France.

He was killed a few weeks later.

In writing to his grieving parents, his commanding officer stated:
"He was a gallant officer, never hesitating to expose himself when necessary, and setting a fine example to both officers and men with whom he was on the best of terms.  He is much regretted by all ranks and particularly by his  brother officers who admired his cheery spirit, good society, and never-failing courage.
(The Times, 25 March 1916, Page 6)

Months passed and on the 19th of August 1916, Will and his battalion arrived at Ypres.  Fighting was fierce on both sides.

Just outside of Boezinges lay the famous Essex Farm military hospital.  It was here that in the previous year, the solider poet John McCrae had penned the words that would become the famous poem 'In Flanders Fields'.  By the time Will arrived he had left and was serving at Boulogne in his capacity as a physician.

Less than one month passed and Will was dead.

Meeting his uncle Henry some time later, Arthur Llewelyn told him how Will had died.  The brothers had found themselves stationed near to each other, when the order came to advance.  They had run forward amidst the bursting of bombs and the sound of bullets.  At one point something made Arthur turn his head and he saw his brother shot and fall.  But this was war and he could not stop.
Despite his sudden tears and the ache in his heart, he must push forward.  To stop might mean not only his own death but the failure of the 'push'.  Later he searched the battlefield until he located Will's body and then got him back to the camp for burial.  This last thing he could do for his dead brother.

The Cemetery at Essex Farm in war conditions.  I can't remember where I found this photograph.
* * * * * * * * * * * 

Leslie was buried at Mont St. Eloi.  He was twenty years of age.

Will was buried at Essex Farm Cemetery.  He was eighteen years of age.

Back in England the grieving parents received the news they dreaded.

Any feelings of 'romance' for war was well and truly dead and buried.

As dead and buried as theirs sons.

This Photograph of Will's grave was taken by Kirk Dale.
This Photograph of Leslie's grave was taken by Kirk Dale.


  1. Dear Kirk- a beautifully told and moving account of these second cousins. Although you did not say so, I am assuming that you are in some way connected to them.
    We can never really know or understand the tragedy that these families went though at that time, but it is important to remember the great sacrifices that they made.

    1. Dear Rosemary,

      Thank you for your comments. I decided I wanted to write something for the 11th that meant something to me because as you have perceived, these two men were relatives of mine. Will's father was my great uncle and Leslie's father and my grandfather were cousins.

      My grandfather was fortunate because a little later on his own battalion was virtually wiped out in fighting, however he had a few days earlier been transferred to the fledgling Royal Air Force.
      AGA and I visited their graves to honour them and the sacrifice they had made.


    2. Dear Kirk - A wonderful and honest tribute! Thank you for sharing the stories on Will and Leslie. I'm so glad Rosemary asked about their family connection to you. It's sad both died at such a young age. At 18, and even 20, I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do in life.

    3. Thank you Loi,
      That goes for me too. I had no idea at that age what I planned to do with my life either except have fun!

  2. Dear Kirk, thank you for a beautifully written story. When I read such accounts of individuals, I always wonder — beyond the loss to family — what has been lost to society in terms of art, science, writing, music, medicine . . . We'll never know all the potential for good that has been lost.

    1. Thank you Mark,
      I tried to make this post a monument for them - but without the fanfare and daring do because they were real people and they had dreams and aspirations all of which were snuffed out before they had time to flower.
      Yes you do wonder. Leslie's brother became a noted Biblical Hebrew scholar and then a Canon of Canterbury Cathedral. Will's brothers prospered although one suffered great ill health for the rest of his life thanks to malaria contracted in Egypt.
      I do wonder what would have happened to the Will and Leslie if they had survived. They were young and idealistic. Who knows what they might have achieved!

  3. Hello Kirk:
    This is a most moving account of the terrible loss of life which took place in World War I. The numbers alone make dizzying reading but, by writing such a personal account, you do, of course, make these events more human and more accessible to us today.War dehumanises in so many ways and therein lies its horror. However, when one can relate to the events in this much more personal way it becomes so much more poignant.

    It is so important to remember those who have died in the fight for freedom. Many years ago we stayed in Arromanches, a scene of the Normany landings and we visited the war graves in the local area. They were all terribly moving places, often very different in style but nevertheless quietly dignified. It was an experience which we shall never forget.

    1. Dear Jane and Lance,

      Thank you for your comments.

      A few years ago I stood with AGA at the top of the tower at Villers Brettoneux and looking down on row upon row of war dead - the full enormity of what was lost - and continues to be lost - really struck home.

      I wanted my post to reflect the fact that war is not 'glorious'. It is not a picnic but a time of death and destruction and the ending of (usually) young lives that could have been spent in cultivating beauty rather than struggling against the ugliness of armed conflict. And all because of the ambitions of a few.

      Having said that however, the reasons they joined up - to defend the weak and oppressed - are indeed glorious.


    2. Hello Kirk [again]:
      Just to let you know that we shortly depart for Venice, and then immediately after for Brighton, and so will be 'off air' so to speak for a while. We shall much look forward to catching up on our return.

    3. Venice! I do love that city and it is a nice time of year to visit.

  4. Your stark post, by stripping war of its rhetoric and pseudo-glamor, shows its bleak and utter heartbreak for the soldiers and families involved.

    1. Thank you Parnassus,
      I wanted to honour my relatives who died but without fanfare and as you rightly say' pseudo glamour'.
      I wanted the reality of their sacrifice (which was noble) to be shown, but in set in to the reality of real war.

  5. Dear Kirk,
    Thank you for sharing this incredibly moving story. It is such an incredibly sad one, but in sharing it, you honor and extend the memory of these beautiful young lives. They sacrificed so much for our freedom, but the world is poorer for having lost them.
    Warm regards,

    1. Dear Erika,
      Thank you for your comment. I totally agree with your summation. I don't usually write somberly but I wanted to share this story.
      You know, it is a shame but we have no photographs of either Will or Leslie because my grandparents house received a direct hit by a bomb during WWII and while no one was killed, all was lost including the sword that our ancestor carried at Waterloo. Such are the fruits of war I suppose.
      Bye for now

  6. Will's headstone reads W. Owen. I had quick jolt, but because you didn't mention it, can I assume that he wasn't Wilfred Owen, the famed poet of WWI?

    1. Correct Will, he was plain Will Owen.
      He had another brother called Owen - as in Owen Owen - now there is a good old Welsh name for you!

  7. Kirk, reading the comments above confirmed for me that the soldiers you've written about were related to you.
    It makes it that much harder, that stupid thing, the First World War.
    My mother's father was among the first to land at Gallipoli, and having lasted there many months, and being seriously wounded, he was invalided back to London, but then sent to France. He only returned to Australia in October 1918, with a Distinguished Conduct Medal.
    It blew them all apart, these men who never knew that life could be so unutterably terrible.
    They were lambs to the slaughter.
    The First World War holds a very special place in my heart as the time that man hurt himself with a degrading totality that can never be beaten.
    I cry for them all. And I pray for them all.

    1. Dear Faisal,
      Yes these young men were related to me and like all those young men who 'went to war' they were young and innocent of the brutality that awaited them.
      I think that your comment: "the time that man hurt himself with a degrading totality that can never be beaten." says it all.
      Any romance that might have been remotely associated with armed conflict was well and truly buried by the year 1918.

  8. dear Kirk, I appreciate you acknowledging Remembrance Day without glorifying war. As a pacifist, i cannot see how war can ever lead to anything positive, even for the victors who end up traumatized in mind even if their bodies have escaped injury.

    1. Dear Catmint,
      I think that it is wrong to glorify war. War only leads to suffering.
      Pacifism is something I think about.
      Do we turn the other cheek when our neighbour is attacked and calling for help to repel the enemy?
      Where do we draw the line between helping others and engaging in conflict because we think we can get something out of it?
      Do we turn the other cheek when we ourselves are attacked?
      I had a great uncle who was a pacifist in WWII. At the outbreak of war he presented himself to the authorities and said publicly that he would never pick up a gun and shoot a fellow human being. He added that he would do anything and everything else but that. Instead he became an ambulance driver and rescue worker, going into places and seeing situations that we can hardly imagine. Was he any less brave? After the war this brave man became a respected member of the community and yet for his entire life any praise was tempered with 'of course you know, he was a conchie during the war'.
      The two young men I wrote of were not conscripted into the army but joined of their own free will as soon as the war started. Their hearts were filled, as were many, with noble thoughts of helping others less fortunate, and in need. Caught up it the 'noble cause'.
      For my part I have a horrible feeling that having read about the the invasion and suffering of the people of Belgium and elsewhere, I too would have like my cousins joined up too - or at least headed to the front line and driven ambulances...
      Bye for now

  9. Kirk, what a sad, moving and well written story! I so hope that in the future humanity recognizes that war is and never will be a solution to resolve any kind of conflict.

    1. Dear Christina,
      Thank you for your kind comments. These events happened over ninety years ago and still we grieve. And yet even though we grieve, and have continued to grieve over each new conflict that arises and takes the lives of our young men and women, it keeps on happening. . .
      Bye for now