I want to speak about two men who never came home from the great war: my great uncle Oliver Williams Benn and George Edwin Ellison.
Oliver was little spoken of in our family when I was growing up, I suspect because the pain of his loss was still too raw despite the passing of the years. What we do know about him now is thanks to my son James, who wrote a book about his life. He was commissioned into the Somerset Light Infantry and arrived in Gallipoli on 26 May 1915, landing on W beach at Cape Helles, where he was posted to the 1st Battalion the Essex Regiment. Ten days later, on 6 June, he was posted missing after the third battle of Krithia. The family desperately searched for news in the hope that he had been captured. His mother wrote to him regularly, but gradually hope faded and at the end of the war all her letters were returned unopened.
A few summers ago, we retraced Oliver’s journey from the beach to the place where he died. The trenches, their edges softened by the years, are still visible in the woods, but the site of trench H12, where he was last seen, is now a field of sunflowers. As we stood there in the burning midday sun, my son James read from Oliver’s last letter to his mother, in which he wrote:
“Good-bye mother darling… Please don’t worry… All my best love, your very happy boy. Nol.”—
Nol was the family nickname for him. His body was never found and he is one of over 20,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers whose names are inscribed on the Helles memorial. He was 38 years old.
George Edwin Ellison lived in Leeds and joined the 5th Royal Irish Lancers at the outbreak of war. He fought at the battle of Mons in 1914 and in the years that followed, at Loos, Ypres and Cambrai, before returning to Mons on 11 November 1918, when, while scouting in the woods on horseback, he was shot and killed by a sniper—a “goodnight kiss”, in the slang. It was around 9.30 in the morning, an hour and a half before the Armistice. George Ellison was 40 years old. As my hon. Friend Tom Watson reminded us in his magnificent speech—as was the speech of the Secretary of State—he was the last British soldier to lose his life in battle in the great war, and he rests in the St Symphorien cemetery, as beautiful in its own way as the field of sunflowers in Gallipoli. How quickly nature covers up the horror of war.
Whether by design or fate, George Ellison’s grave is just a few footsteps across the grass, as we heard, from the resting place of the first British soldier to die in action on the western front, John Parr, who was with the 4th Battalion the Middlesex Regiment. He was just 17 years of age. The first and the last, and in between them in time, if not in place, lie the millions who gave their lives in the war that was meant to end all wars, but did not.
Philip Parker wrote this poem inspired by the life and death of George Ellison and John Parr. It is part of “The Centena Collection” of Armistice poems, produced in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum by a group of writers known simply as 26. Each poem is exactly 100 words. It is entitled “Goodnight Kiss”:
“Five strides apart, five summers past, I saluted you and the old sweats riding to War.
I fell first. And waited: while you mined the frozen mud. Ducked into crump holes. Pinched lice from your seams. Felt the pear drops’ sting at Wipers.”—
“pear drops” was the slang for gas—
“You drink Hannah’s words from home; Jimmy’s walking now.
Then you’re following the tank tracks from Cambrai. The chase draws you to Mons, where your War began. In the woods on the eleventh day, a goodnight kiss. Ninety minutes to Armistice.
My wait ends. First and last in a bunker for pals, we lie five strides apart.”
May those who fell forever rest in peace as we who are left resolve always to remember them.
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