Madonna of the Penultimate Train

Not the last train, the one before. Packed, but not rowdy. Not teetering, precariously, on the border between alcoholic hilarity and boozed belligerence, like the last train of the night.

The seats are arranged in fours. Rows of two-seats-facing-two-seats running either side of narrow aisles.

A group of four young men with perma-grins, knees twitching, phones clasped in hands, tolerates an enforced interval. An interval in what? Smoking, drinking, war-gaming? I’ll leave the possibilities there, though there are others, places I don’t want to go.

And they sound quite normal. Heads-back, mouth-open laughter mingling with cries of ‘boss’ and ‘sound’ – and not too many expletives deleted. Nice lads, perhaps.

An older couple sits, side by side, programmes held aloft. Whether they’re really re-reading the (classical) concert notes or warding off the world it’s hard to say. He wears a hat. She wears a proper coat. And leather gloves.

The carriage is full. But the noise is muted, for the time of night and the time of week, Thursday going on weekend.

Across the aisle, in the parallel foursome, three male individuals sit. One lolls, head against the window, adding another greasy smear to the picture formed by other heads and fingers.

One chews on a thumb.  Twitches now and then in his seat. Stares around the carriage, as if looking for a lost friend – or enemy.

The other reads a book. Yes, a book.

The picture fades to black and white. The volume is turned right down on laughter, shuffling, coughing, sneezing – and conversation.

The fourth seat, next to the aisle, diagonally opposite me, is all there is.

A picture in full colour.

A three dimensional image, standing out against the flat backdrop of monotone shades.

A young woman. But young only in physical form.

A Mona Lisa without the supercilious smile. A Black Madonna who’s not black, not an icon, not a painting, but three dimensional  flesh and blood.

A statue brought to life, warm, living, breathing. Though you can’t see the movement.

She sits, hands on lap, looking straight ahead. But seeing – what?

There’s something about this person, her eyes, her un-self-conscious poise, her stillness – her depth – that makes me wonder.

‘Don’t stare,’ he says, the man I married. But he stares too.

‘She doesn’t see,’ I say. And it’s true.

Her eyes are so compelling. Full of mystery. As if she has known the woes of the world. Pain – and lost joy.

It’s the second week of Advent. Christmas not too far away.

I think of that young woman, two thousand years ago, or so. Giving birth to a boy-baby. In a stable. Her joy at holding a healthy child. Secure in the love of a husband – tolerant, given the circumstances.

Safe, despite the occupation of their homelands.

Or were they safe?

The strange men who came from the East, with gifts meaning – what? Did they really follow a star?

What did they think of this babe in arms, who did they think he might be?

And that King the wise men spoke with, Herod. Their warnings about his intentions.

A fearful king. So afraid of an infant pretender he had all male babies murdered.

The young mother’s joy at that birth – how long did it last?

How soon did that first Madonna know that her son, who found an independent voice so young, who said he must be about his father’s business, who learned the carpenter’s trade but gave it up and left to wander and preach – would die a brutal death?

A carpenter’s son. Nailed to the very wood that had been his family’s living. In agony.

When I think about my Madonna of the Penultimate Train, when I remember her face, I see a tear escaping, rolling down one smooth, perfect, healthily plump cheek from one of her dark, limpid eyes.

I see her blink. And her hands fold back on her lap, like a dove settling on warm grass, after brushing one tear away.

But there were no tears. She did not cry.

And as the train pulled into her station she rose, walked to the doors and was gone.

More than five years have passed – and still I can see her. Still imagine her.

And still, I wonder.

A beautiful Black Madonna from Wroclaw, Poland




I brought this post forward a few days as I have decided not to finish this little series of pen portraits and have another, non-seasonal one, waiting in the wings.

The flight of Mary and Joseph put me in mind of those fleeing persecution with little or nothing to their names. So here are contact details for some more charitable organisations, this time helping refugees – there will only be more as our climate changes and conflicts continue  – and children in need worldwide.

This came up on my Facebook feed this week and for once their intrusion was welcome. A great idea, a shop where you can buy things for refugees, in real life or online:

https://choose.love/

I know some people don’t feel the UN gives value for money but good people in the UNHCR and UNICEF do a lot of valuable work both with refugees and for children:

https://www.unicef.org/

https://www.unhcr.org/

The flight into Egypt of Mary, Joseph & baby Jesus to escape the slaughter of innocents by King Herod. Paining on the wall of Helga Trefaldighets Kyrka (Holy Trinity Church) Uppsala, Sweden

And the slaughter.

 

Posted in pen portraits | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

A winter’s Eve, on the train

Her hair is glossy-pale. Slicked across her head into a neat ponytail with a hint of a curl at the end. Part blonde, part blue, pale blue. Colours of a clear winter’s sky on the eastern horizon, seconds after the sun has set.

Her head is turned to look at the window. She can’t see out.

The night is dark, raindrops cling to the dirt-streaked glass, glisten in the swift-passing lights of the suburbs.

But perhaps she sees something, not nothing.

Her legs are pipe-cleaner thin. Threaded into pale jeans, improbably tight. Slashed, but clean.

One leg, the left, is crossed over the other, her left foot tucked behind her right calf. Contorted. Yet ballerina-graceful.

She hunches forward, one arm wrapped around her middle, her hand grasping her side as if to hold herself together. The other hand cups her mouth, hiding her expression.

But her eyes can’t be hidden.

Sad? Fearful? Both?

She is scrunched. As if she would like to screw herself up, like an old till receipt, a final demand, a rejection, and throw herself in the bin.




 This is the first of four pen portraits I plan to publish, one for each week of Advent, with some ideas for charities to which you might donate. The choices are personal and subjective.

This is a terrible time of the year to be lonely, to be suicidal. There is so much talk of joy and happiness, merriment and family that a person living a grey life can feel like the only one excluded from a brightly coloured world.

The British charity, Samaritans, is especially relevant to this observation on my local train service, Merseyrail. Here’s an extract from the Samaritans’ website:

“Since 2010, as part of their partnership with Network Rail and the wider rail industry Samaritans has trained almost 18,000 rail staff and British Transport Police officers with the skills to help someone at risk of suicide on the railway. Over 2500 have also been trained with skills to recognise the symptoms of trauma in colleagues and to help them seek support.”

The Samaritans organisation does much more than that and you can learn more (and donate) here:

https://www.samaritans.org

It is more difficult to track down an organisation that works on mental health internationally, but these professionals seem to be doing a worthwhile job, spreading more enlightened methods of treating mental illness around the world – and they can accept donations:

https://imhcn.org/about-2/

Posted in pen portraits | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A change of seasonal plan

Well.

What a difference a day makes.

The last twenty four little hours have seen me race to the top of Creative Peak. Happy and dancing, like Maria in the Sound of Music. Without the voice.

Then a gust from a passing gale blew me right down the chasm of Thoughtless Comment. So it’s been a restless night.

But today I’m climbing the gentle slope of Well, What If?

I had planned to start publishing the first of my seasonal tales this week, having written parts one and two so far to huge critical acclaim (translated: the prof liked them).

But several disruptors joined forces to make me rethink.

So….

Instead of a quartet of magical imaginings, I’m going to feature some pen portraits. Observations of people seen in these wintry, northern hemisphere days, on our local commuter train.

Obviously not our local commuter train. But I love this picture of innocence and happiness – what could be more cheering than childish joy in this fog of world wide gloom?

And I will add some links to charities that could benefit from our generosity at this over-commercialised, over-expectant, over-hyped time of year. Though – but no, dammit, I’ll be optimistic.

After all, I’ve just reached that point in my climb up Well What If? that’s called, You Never Know.

Irrelevant photo. But I like it

 

Posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Stories…

Page number from booklet

It’s the time of year for dark nights, warm hearts and magical tales – well, in the northern hemisphere and its cooler climes it is!

I am busy working on my annual offering of seasonal tales, my head buzzing with old magic and new ideas. But in the meantime hope you will forgive me for reminding you of a tale from a few years ago.

A Little Match Girl is  a short, hand printed, hot-metal set booklet which has been a labour of love for all involved. I re-wrote the original Hans Andersen tale – giving it a slightly happier ending – and setting it in smoky Victorian London where ‘match girls’ were both match sellers and women who worked in factories with dangerous white phosphorus.  There’s one of each in my tale.

If you are interested in its genesis you can read about the process it went through and see a few videos (you can skip the words, go to the image and captions) on my other blogging site in the post linked to here. (Oh – it was not, as it says in the post, printed on a  mechanical press, it was hand-printed on a Vandercook proofing press.)

The polymer block that printed one of the page numbers

Several of you have bought them already – for which many, many thanks. I hope the recipients, if they are gifts, enjoy them, they carry a good message for this hyper-commercial time of year (she says as she tries to sell them!)

It is now getting late for posting to far flung places for Christmas/the solstice/whatever, but there is still – just – time.

I should warn you that postage and packaging costs will be added to the cost of the booklet (£5) itself.  One Australian (not a blog follower) cancelled an order when it turned out  £3.95 was required to send the tale in its cardboard envelope.

But a lovely American woman called Stephanie made my heart sing with her joyful reaction to her copy, which was duly paid for and posted and arrived on a special birthday.

Here it is then, the website link.

http://www.cosiandveyn.co.uk

And don’t worry, soon the next tales will start appearing so you can forget all about this post!

Posted in Fiction, probably | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The other end of the First World War. ‘Tipperary mbali sana, sana’

Imagine a human chain of sixteen and a half thousand people, mostly barefoot and carrying heavy burdens – sixty pounds, twenty seven kilos – on their heads. Some pulling carts.

Walking up to fifteen miles a day under the searing glare of the tropical sun, or in the sweltering heat of the rainy seasons. Feet grabbed by black, grasping cotton mud or floundering in soft, hindering sand.

Clambering rocky escarpments, pushing through jungles, wading rivers. Transporting essential supplies to a thousand other people, hundreds of miles away.

Those 16,500 humans were what it took to transport just one day’s supply of food to the British front line in ‘East Africa’ in 1916.

Fourteen thousand of those men and women – carriers, porters or ‘tenga tenga’ – carried food for the column itself. Only two and half thousand bore supplies for the troops.

Many of these people died, serving a cause which was not theirs. Sometimes willingly, for decent pay, sometime the reverse. Falling as much to disease as injury, like the troops they supplied.

They were not the only ones. This was just one chain in a very long series of chains on the British side. The Germans depended on 350,000 human carriers.*

And yet these people are largely un-commemorated. As, indeed, is the whole ‘East African’ action of World War I.

I put ‘East Africa’ in inverted commas because my first brush with its legacy came in South Central Africa – Zambia to be precise. There I saw a small – and not very visible – memorial on a roundabout in a small – and not very visited – town.

But this week, on 25 November 2018, that town will be busy. Possibly busier than it has ever been since the end of World War I.

Because many dignitaries, including British High Commissioner, Fergus Cochrane Dyet and General Lord David Richards, of Sierra Leone fame, will converge on that small town, Mbala.

The Great North Road, Zambia’s main route north to Tanzania, runs through Mbala and yet the tarmac peters out as it approaches the border (or did when I was last there, en route to Kalambo Falls).

It is a long, long way from any city, never mind Ireland, and to this day the logistics of visiting are far from easy (especially if you travel from South Luangwa up the escarpment as we did in 2006).

In 1914 Tanzania was German East Africa and Zambia was Northern Rhodesia – and there lies the crux of it. German one side of the border, British the other.

It was Mbala, then called Abercorn, that saw the final surrender, the other end and other ending – of the First World War.

Taken from a website devoted to 1950s & 1960s Northern Rhodesia/Zambia, posted by Amanda Parkyn this view of Abercorn shows the main road stretching up from the left crossing the watercourse fringed by mbala palms – which provided the new name-  & the Tanzanian hills in the distance.

It had widely been assumed that the colonies in East and Southern Africa would not join hostilities, but Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (a friend, by-the-by, of Karen Blixen) had other ideas.

German attacks on Abercorn and Fife in Northern Rhodesia and Karonga in Nyasaland (Malawi) made sitting out the war impossible.

Germany at war had visions of extending its colonial rule over Portuguese- and Belgian-claimed territories, to make a vast ‘Mittelafrika.

Map of colonial southern Africa in 1905, from Encyclopedia Britannica online

In German East Africa, von Lettow-Vorbeck, Commander of the Schutztruppe (the Germany colonial army, Kaiserliche Schutztruppe für Deutsch-Ostafrika) already had a force of trained, disciplined troops, askaris, at his disposal.

He also had a network of telegraph and heliograph (signalling with mirrors using sunlight) stations, which enabled him to coordinate his forces and move them around swiftly and effectively.

Northern Rhodesia had no such infrastructure.

It began badly for Britain.  But she had an Empire to draw on – and allies.

The British South Africa Company, BSAC, which administered Northern Rhodesia, was not allowed to raise an army, though it had a police force trained on military lines – with its headquarters in Livingstone, over 700 miles (more than 1000 kilometres) away.

Abercorn was the northernmost town of BSAC-administered territory, a massive expanse of land stretching from South Africa to Tanzania, bordered by Portuguese, German and Belgian colonial territories.

One of the reasons such a vast expanse of territory was handed over to a company to run was to delegate responsibility (and avoid the cost) for developing a transport infrastructure.

For commerce to prosper, for ‘government’ to be imposed and order maintained, railways and roads were a prerequisite.

But commercial priorities proved a weakness in time of war. The railways had gone no further than commerce necessitated. No commercial justification, no railway.

Abercorn was more than 600 miles (1000 kilometres) from the nearest usable railway line (at Broken Hill, now Kabwe, famous for the discovery of ‘Broken Hill’ man).

There were no roads suitable for an army’s mechanical vehicles, whether steam or petrol powered – and no supplies of fuel.

In August 1914, the War Office in London delegated this ‘other end’ of the war, in East Africa, to the India Office, who sent in Indian Expeditionary Force B.

They were joined by the King’s African Rifles, comprising soldiers from across British territories in East Africa, including modern-day Kenya, Uganda and Sudan. Other British colonial forces came from the nations that are now South Africa, Malawi, Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia and Zimbabwe. Troops even came from the West Indies. And of course, Britain itself.

Belgian and Portuguese allies then joined the fray, from the Congo and Mozambique.

The Germans, though a much smaller force, had their highly skilled, disciplined army of askaris, well trained in bush warfare and skilled at guerrilla tactics. Their aim was to keep the enemy on the run and constantly draw in more troops in to hinder the British war effort on the Western Front.

It was a gruelling war.

The territory covered was huge, 750,000 square miles, an area three times the size of the German Reich.  There were some pitched battles, but most of the action was by isolated columns of men, moving at times through elephant grass so tall that, while they could not be seen, they themselves could not see.

It was very different from the trench warfare of the Western Front.

Conditions were atrocious.

Lorry driver W.W. Campbell wrote of conditions in German East Africa:

‘Distressed and depressed beyond measure, we felt that death and ugliness lurked everywhere. It was in the air we breathed, the water we drank, the sun that warmed our bodies; it crawled on the ground, dropped heavily from rain-sodden trees, hung suspended in the humid, reeking atmosphere. Every living thing went in fear of its life, or turned upon another in self-preservation. Human life itself was an embodiment of ignorance and suspicion. It permeated our very souls, turned bright thoughts into dark, and made one long for the fate that he feared.’

[from ‘Forged in the Great War‘ by J-B Gewald, originally cited in Byron Farwell, The Great War in Africa: 1914-1918 p 274]

As well as the human enemy, there was the natural world to contend with, the lions, snakes, elephants, hippos, tsetse flies, mosquitoes.

Disease was rife: not just the debilitating and often fatal malaria, but sleeping sickness, meningitis, smallpox, dysentery, pneumonia – and as the war drew to an end, that devastating Western import, Spanish influenza.

The tsetse flies meant death to pack animals, hence the need for so many humans to take their place.

And their absence took its toll on the civilian population. They were not at home, raising crops tending to animals. The disruption to life across the vast territories affected was immense.

It was as if a vast plague of locusts and disease moved around, ravaging the whole region for the four years of the war. And when the fighting stopped, the angel of death flew in, spreading deadly influenza.

The abandoned fields, the ruined crops, the starving men, women and children. It hardly bears thinking about.

So far from Sarajevo.

So far from Tipperary.

Yes, Tipperary mbali sana, sana – Tipperary, very, very far – was apparently a marching song of the King’s African Rifles. Fighting for a cause they probably could not comprehend (did anyone?) in a war which was not of their making.

And I somehow doubt that any of the native soldiers’ hearts lay in Ireland.

A Zambian woman once exclaimed, when I said I’d been to Mbala, ‘Ah! How can that be? I am Zambian, it is very far away.’

Indeed.

There is so much more to say about this smaller ‘great’ war, about its human costs, about its political implications, about its significance, about its causes, but I’ve already well overrun my usual allotted space.

And so, to that other ending, of that other end of that terrible, ‘Great’ War.

As the last battle ended at Chambeshi Bridge, on 14 November 1918, General von Lettow-Vorbeck received the news that the Armistice had been signed in Europe. And the news he could hardly believe – Germany had been defeated.

Memorial at the site of Chambeshi Bridge. It reads: “On this spot at 7.30 am on Thursday 14th November 1918, General von Lettow-Vorbeck, commanding the German forces in East Africa, heard from Mr Hector Croad, then District Commissioner Kasama, of the signing of the Armistice by the German government, which provided for the unconditional evacuation of all German forces from East Africa”. A second plaque in Bemba ends with the words: “Twapela umuchinshi kuli bonse abashipa abalwile mu nkondo iyi” – we honour all brave soldiers in this war.
Image By Carrol Fleming – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

On 25 November General von Lettow-Vorbeck surrendered to Britain’s General W.F.S. Edwards, at Mbala.

The surrender to the British by General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck at Abercorn, now Mbala, Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, as seen by an anonymous African artist. Picture held by the National Museum of Tanzania

My thoughts on 25 November will be with the vast numbers of porters who lie buried, forgotten, their graves unmarked.

At least, in 2018, a few more people, thanks to a few tenacious historians, will remember them – and hope that they might rest in peace.

Zambia Tourism Facebook page’s image of the memorial on a roundabout in present day Mbala

The plaque on Mbala’s memorial



*Statistics taken from Edward Paice’s very readable online article,  ‘How the Great War Razed Africa,’ published by the Africa Research Institute, which contains maps, illustrations, a very good bibliography and more detail than I could include here.

It is impossible to condense such a vast undertaking in such a short post and I am sure I have made mistakes. I can only apologise. Here are some better informed sources which I consulted, along with the above:

An excellent, readable, thought-provoking analysis of how the war was managed and what the war meant for government of the future British Protectorate of Northern Rhodesia:

Forged in the Great War: People, Transport, and Labour, the establishment of Colonial Rule in Zambia 1890-1920 by Jan-Bart Gewald

A good, personal, short introduction:

A Bloody Tale Best Ignored, by Richard Sneyd, for The Centre for Hidden Histories:

A very detailed but concise account of the early stages of the war in East Africa with pictures and sources:

The Soldier’s Burden

This book cropped up again and again (and was well reviewed by novelist William Boyd whose book The Ice Cream Wars was set in the context of this conflict):

Tip and Run: the Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa, by Edward Paice

 

Posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both, Zambia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

In the company of twitchers

Solitary men. Mostly. Some in camouflage clothing.

Cameras with long lenses. Tripods slung over shoulders.

Patient people. Often, it seems to me, not quite sad, but resigned.

And a closeness amid the isolation. A willingness to share as they seek individual trophies.* The satisfaction of a sighting, yes, but also a record. An image. The proof.

*(Though I’m sure that there are twitchers out there as ruthless as any fossil hunter.)

I masquerade, sometimes, skimming the edges of this fraternity, saying little so as not to reveal my ignorance.

Yesterday, in walking boots, jeans and green fleece-lined jacket, I stepped out under a personal cloud. Pale grey, not dark. Hoping to dispel it.

Too glamorous to be my personal clouds

My pre-loved camera and new-old lens, in a bag with my notebook, hung over a shoulder. The little-red-picture-machine hidden in my left pocket, camera phone in the right. The rest of my worldly goods – and two bunches of beautiful, blowsy seasonally-hued chrysanthemums – were safely stowed in the boot of the car.

I love big blowsy chrysanthemums

Optimism was already pushing for the surface.

A session at our fortnightly ‘work’ (a loose term) hub lay behind me, new ideas and inspiration sowed in my despondent brain by a co-‘worker’. His mini-tutorial on the workings of my camera, though, already forgotten.

I set off in search of an archaeologist, called Ron. He’d be working here, he told me a few days earlier, for a couple of weeks.

I was on the track of facts – and shared inspiration. A short piece I’ve written on the Mesolithic site would bear more detail, scaffolding for my imaginative leap into hunter-gatherer life.

Ron Cowell the archaeologist on the right, on site earlier in the year with a co-worker

A rather inadequate image of a reconstructed Mesolithic hut of the type thought to have been on this site, also earlier this year

I climbed the platform overlooking the site.

One man already stood, surveying the work of a mechanical digger and dumper truck building a new bank to protect the all-too-easily-flooded excavations.

But there was no Ron to be seen.

Sometimes things work out for the best.

The man-in-green and I chatted. Turned out he’s a volunteer on the Reserve’s steering committee.

Then a wiry man with observant eyes, dressed head-to-toe in camouflage gear – camera and massive lens included – joined us.

The reserve has been more than usually busy the last few weeks. Was the draw, I asked (excavating a sliver of information buried in my brain) the short-eared owls?

‘No, they’ve not been showing much this year,’ said wiry, camouflaged man.

Then he pulled out his phone and showed me the screen.

A bittern. A beautiful bittern.

Now, if you’re at all interested in birds, or wildlife and live in Britain, you’ll probably know that the bittern is a rare, elusive creature.

To me they hold semi-mythical status.

I once accidentally listened to a radio play (I hate them!) about a quest for the bittern.

They make a booming sound in spring. A sound, it is said, akin to a fog horn.

And are so rare that when they are spotted at a new site the twitchers swarm in like wasps to a human picnic.

These twitchers were only too happy to share.

I know, now, where the bitterns land. Where they rest and hide. The timing of their daily visits. The flight-path of their incoming trajectories.

As I left, man-in-green said, ‘Good to meet you.’

And I truthfully replied, ‘you too,’ going on my way feeling sometimes the world is all right.

I abandoned the archaeology – and the afternoon’s bittern arrival. It was cold and they weren’t due for another hour. Plus, there are no ‘facilities’ on the site and much tea had been drunk in the morning.

Beautiful autumn-hued fields across the River Alt

But, I made a couple more stops, one by a patch of almost sinister blue water, ruffled by the slightest breeze.

‘Did you see the female sparrowhawk?’ said a passing man as I left.

‘Erm, no,’ I said. Didn’t tell I’d been transfixed by oh-so-common cormorants airing their dark wings.

 

I made one final stop by a muddy, bare patch of ‘management’ which will, in time, settle down to wildfowl and reeds.

‘Are you well-up on waders?’ asked the man in the hide, with a face that seemed more sad than resigned, ‘I know my redshanks and so on, but this one?’

He laughed when I told him my knowledge stopped at herons and egrets.

‘As for the bittern they’re all after,’ I say with a shrug, ‘I don’t think I’d recognise one if I saw one.’

He smiles a benevolent smile, ‘Oh, I think you would,’ then turns and points up to the sky, ‘look!’

The nameless wader had flown. Even I could see it was different. So elegant in flight.

I missed much that flew, yesterday.

But I saw the wide, littoral sky.

And as the light went, as the moon rose, as the chill of twilight sank with the sun upon the earth, I left.

Cold. But reassured.

By my time spent in the solitary company of twitchers.

Posted in Art, jaunts & going out, Britain now & then, Lancashire & the golf coast, Liverpool, Nature notes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

In a muddy field near Liverpool, he lies

It was a 45 minute drive.

I pulled on wellies, ready to tromp through mud to take a picture. The least I could do, in the circumstances.

I could see no obvious entry point so went to the office labelled ‘RSPCA’ – the animal charity that occupies the land – and waited in line to speak to someone.

‘Could you tell me where I get into the field to see the grave?’  I asked.

‘It’s in the far corner,’ he gestured, ‘but you have to make an appointment.’

‘It didn’t say anything about an appointment online,’ I pleaded with my eyes, ‘I’ve come a long way.’

It didn’t work.

‘Can’t let you in. Health and safety, the ground’s uneven.’

My enthusiasm was rapidly waning as I waited for a contact to call, for next time.

Next time? Hah.

My journey to this place had begun when a literary agent (don’t get excited, friend-of-a-friend) sent me a cutting from the Daily Telegraph.

It told of a gravestone, in the corner of that muddy field, protected by Grade II listed building status.

The grave of a horse.

Called Blackie.

Blackie died, aged 37, in this, the former ‘Horse’s Rest’ in Halewood, near Liverpool, in 1942.

It had been an eventful life. Because Blackie was a war horse.

He served throughout the First World War. Saw action at the Somme, Ypres, Arras, Cambrai. And now lies buried near Liverpool, thanks to Lieutenant Leonard Comer Wall. His partner in war. And poet.

Now, I am not one for horses, nor for wars. Have never read, nor seen War Horse.

But it turned out this story had a link even closer to home – and it intrigued me.

Leonard was born ‘over the water’  in West Kirby, in 1896, but his first school, Terra Nova, was a short walk from where I now live, in Birkdale, Southport.

Though the old gate. Requisitioned for war purpose in WWII it later became a school for the deaf. It is now to be turned into a care home after years of planning disputes

A sad sight round the other side. What looks like a  World War II air raid shelter is in the foreground

It felt like fate had thrown down a crumb, told me to follow a trail.

Which is why I was there, boots ready for mud, an hour and a half poorer in time, with nothing to show for it. Except a poignant tale, as are so many of that war which failed to end all wars.

Leonard came from a relatively wealthy family, by dint of the Liverpool merchant’s trade. I don’t know when he left Terra Nova, but the little boy next moved some distance away, to Clifton College in Bristol – a short walk from both the places we lived in that city.

More of those crumbs …

When war was declared, Leonard was still at school, but within days had volunteered.

In August 1914 he became a temporary Second Lieutenant in the 1st West Lancashire Brigade, Royal Field Artillery (RFA) but his service began in earnest in 1915.

After action at the Somme and around Arras, came Ypres. Then the Battle of Messines Ridge, in 1917.

Leonard, more than once passed over for promotion, had at last made Lieutenant. Mentioned in dispatches for bravery, he had also penned a poem which, as far as I can see, was his only published work, but enough to gain him entry to the ranks of the War Poets.

RED ROSES

When Princes fought for England’s Crown,
The House that won the most renown,
And struck the sullen Yorkist down,
Was Lancaster.

Her blood-red emblem stricken sore,
Yet steeped her pallid foe in gore,
Still stands for England evermore,
And Lancashire.

Now England’s blood like water flows,
Full many a lusty German knows,
We win or die – who wear the rose
Of Lancaster.

Leonard Comer Wall
Liverpool Daily Post
13 April 1917

One week after his promotion, on June 7th 1917, the new Lieutenant, riding Blackie, was in action with the 55th (West Lancashire) Division near the village of Wytschaete when he was hit by shrapnel from an exploding shell.

Blackie was wounded and his groom, Driver Francis Wilkinson was killed.

Lieutenant Comer Wall died the next day.

The two men are buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.

Leonard was twenty years old. An only child. Engaged to be married to Irene Dorothy Bryan (who later, happily, found a new love with whom to share her life).

As it says. One small part of Southport’s imposing Peace Monument (not war memorial)

In his will, Leonard left £180 – quite a sum for a young man – and requested that, should he not survive the war, Blackie be cared for and his medals buried with the horse when he, too, died.

His partner gone, Blackie rode on to the end of the war, wearing his own ‘decorations,’ the scars of his shrapnel wounds.

When the war ended, in keeping with his wishes, Leonard’s mother brought the horse back to its old home of Liverpool, the city from which he had set out four bloody years ago.

There were happy times ahead in his retirement. Blackie, with another war horse, Billie, is said to have led the annual carters’ parade through Liverpool, wearing Comer Wall’s medals, until he was retired to the Horse’s Rest.

There he now lies, presumably with those medals, in a corner of a not-so-foreign field. Unlike poor Leonard.

But the short-lived Lieutenant would, I hope, have been proud to see what happened to his words.

Under an announcement of his death which appeared in a newspaper, ran his line:

‘We win or die who wear the Rose of Lancaster.’

They were brought to the attention of General Jeudwine, the Divisional Commander, who ordered that, henceforward, they should surround the divisional sign, where they were amended to read:

‘They win or die who wear the Rose of Lancaster’

In 1919, the Division chaplain, Canon Coop, had enamelled plaques bearing the motto (known as ‘cocardes’)  placed on the graves of the men of the 55th (West Lancashire) Division.

 

[Picture from Merseyside Roll of Honour]

Young Leonard’s old school, Clifton College, carved his poet-soldier’s name on the college’s war memorial.

And I’m sure there is understandable pride in the gallantry of its alumni, among them  General Haig, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front from late 1915 to the end of the war.

But that pride is far outweighed, for me, by the utter tragedy of the loss, from this one school, of 582 of its boys.

Will we remember them, now 100 years have been and will soon be gone?

I will. With sadness.

And may they rest in peace. Wherever they, their horses and their medals lie.


 

I drew extensively when writing this on a detailed, well researched and fascinating post by Mike Royden for which I am immensely grateful. It has the pictures I could not provide. If you are at all interested in the military side of the story do read it.

http://www.roydenhistory.co.uk/halewood/warmemorial/wargraves/blackie/blackie_leonard_comer_wall.pdf

 

Posted in Britain now & then, Lancashire & the golf coast, Liverpool, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments