A couple of years ago our local hall had a second hand book sale, hundreds of dusty titles on four rickety trestle tables. I purchased a number of books, and at home I went through my acquisitions one by one – checking the binding, reading the front sheets, overjoyed at these inexpensive additions to my modest collection. Amongst my purchases was a century old Catholic text called ‘Mary’s Praise on Every Tongue,’ by P.J. Chandlery, bound in blue cloth. A golden nativity scene in the shape of a shield adorned the cover.
When I picked up the book and flicked through, a loose paper caught my eye. It was a poem clipped from a newspaper, butter yellow and creased to leathery softness, as if it had been handled a thousand times. This snippet of forgotten literature was called ‘The Soldier,’ and credited to some long ago wordsmith called Florence Earle Oates.
Dear God, I raised my boy to be a soldier;
I tried to make him strong of will and true;
I told him many a tale of deeds heroic—
The noblest and the sweetest tales I knew…
Turning back to the front papers I found the original owner’s name, and the date, March 1915. An image came to me of a mother’s lonely vigil while her son huddled in his trench and clutched his Lee Enfield ten thousand miles away.
Over the following days I could not get that mother and her son out of my mind. What had happened to him? Had he returned? I needed to know the result of that vigil. How much information did I need? I had a name and hoped it would be enough.
I obtained the war record of the only WWI digger who could have matched the name on the book’s front pages. It took about two weeks to arrive. Before I opened the envelope I reread the snippet of poetry, imagining the solace a mother might have drawn from those gentle words—of how they might have filled the silent, endless nights. I thought of Gallipoli, Verdun, and the Somme, where sixty thousand men died in a single day.
Inside the envelope, a neat printed folder protected the loose photocopied sheets. Opening this, I read every word—the personal details, the postings and misadventures that had punctuated Harry’s journey to France. I learned that he had played the piano, and that just days off the boat he had copped some shrapnel. Six weeks later, he was back at the front, and mentioned in dispatches, for bravery.
I read the telegram that told his parents of his death. My mind’s eye saw the telegram boy, and the priest’s tragic walk through the garden and up the steps. I pictured her face when she heard the news. I felt what she felt, my chest ached with her pain.
And so I raised my boy to be a soldier;
A patriot soldier, brave, devoted, free.
And now, and now¾with grateful trust, O Father.
I give him to my country and to Thee.
From a forgotten poem I learned what it is to hate war. I learned what it’s like to be the mother of a soldier.
Greg Barron 2014