I am sitting in Seat 14 at the County Archives Office waiting for a file of precious documents to be delivered to me by one of the very helpful archives staff. I had proudly announced to him that I was a volunteer
with the Great War Project (see link on the left) though I have to say that he was less impressed than I hoped he’d be.
And here it is, set before me,
a green cardboard file fastened with white tape and a square card with the file number on it. Inside, the story of Ernest George Richardson, from Streat in East Sussex, who died in the Battle of Marne in July 1918 aged 26. I undo the white tape with
Inside, on top of a little pile of letters home, is a postcard, the last postcard Ernest sent home to his loving family on 21st July
1918, just eight days before he would die in battle. The picture on the front is what some might call sentimental – but I will leave you to be the judge of that, once you have heard the full story. It depicts a soldier lying on his side in the trenches.
Above him there is a picture of a family at home, sitting round a blazing fire. And in between the two pictures, these words under the title “Dreams of Home and You”.
“Now the restless day is ending
And the shadows round me fall,
Homeward aye my heart keeps wending
Home, where is enshrined my all.
And I think about you often
Fearing not what luck may bring
If the home I’m guarding’s guarded,
And you’re right – that’s everything.”
On the back, Ernest has written: “We are very busy at present; rather an anxious time, I think.” What magnificent and tragic under-statement from one in the thick of battle. Did he suspect, when he sent that postcard, that after more
than three years in Egypt and the Dardanelles, Soissons might be the death of him?
The man at the next desk is talking to me so I have to drag myself back to the
present. Do I have any idea, he asks me, when George III reigned? I shake my head – I might have been able to work it out, given time and inclination, but both my head and my heart is back in 1918 at the Battle of Marne. My neighbour sets off to
find a more knowledgeable person to help him.
I decide not to take notes at the moment, just to read Ernest’s loving letters home and immerse myself
into his story. Each letter starts by thanking his mother and father for “your kind and welcome letters”, each one asks after their health, reassuring them that he is well. Almost all of them talk of “looking on the bright side.”
Every one is signed with a row of kisses – just the way I sign my letters to my best beloved.
He talks of the day he was able to go to Cairo on leave and
how he had his photo taken there. My own dad did the same when he was serving in the Eighth Army in Egypt in the Second World War. I’m glad Ernest never knew that “The War To End All Wars” didn’t...
On 29th July 1918, Ernest George Richardson, fighting the Germans at Marne, took a massive hit in his thigh. So heavy was the enemy shelling that nobody was able to rescue casualties. He
probably bled to death, alone and in terrible pain. He lies in an unknown grave in a foreign field.
On my way to the Records Office I had visited the Cathedral
to see if Mrs Peregrine Falcon’s eggs had hatched out yet. They haven’t but the man from the RSPB told me she is making all the usual moves which suggest that it will be any day now. Do you remember, when I wrote about this last, that
I said how sad she must be that she had so little time with her babies before they flew the nest?
Not so sad, I’m thinking now, as Ernest’s mother
Louisa who put an advert in the paper, so desperate was she for any news of her younger son who had been posted “Missing Presumed Killed.”
carefully replace all the letters, photographs and newspaper cuttings in the green folder and re-tie the white tape, I take another look at the postcard and spot something I hadn’t noticed before. It’s written very faintly in pencil,
in the top right hand corner and it reads: “Dear Ern’s last postcard.”
Right there, in Seat 14, unashamedly, I weep.