“What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.”
Charles John “Jack” Baylis was born to Helena “Nell” Newell and Charles Joseph “Charlie” Baylis on 8 Jan 1892 in London. He was their only child. He was killed by shell-fire on the Somme on 10 September 1916. He was 24 and unmarried. He was my cousin.
The Western Front in The Great War haunts me; with its sticky, yellow, poisonous mud, its fractured landscape, its tin hats and gas masks, its entrenching tools, its burial of a generation of young men in assorted bits and pieces, its white feathers and son-less mothers. It haunts me.
I read this morning of the 6 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan on Tuesday and I saw the ridiculously youthful face of 19 year-old Private Christopher Kershaw in The Huffington Post. Perhaps in 14 years, Mrs Kershaw will write a letter just like Nell’s one, transcribed below. It breaks my heart and never fails to make me cry.
My dearest Brother Jack,
This is not my Xmas letter dear, but I feel I want very much to tell you of our wonderful news of what happened this summer. I have continually wanted to tell you all about it for I know that you will feel sympathy with my dear Charlie and me over it. It is all about our dear boy Jack. You know dear, it is 14 years since he passed from us and (we) have always concluded that the dear boy and his bearers who were carrying him, under fire, to a dressing station, were killed by a shell and have never heard anything different until this year. Charlie and I went over to Belgium to stay for our holidays with Fred. On July 19th last and on hearing there were four memorials to the “Somme” to be unveiled on Aug 4th, we wrote to the War Graves Commission to ask them where we might find our dear boy’s name so that we might go see it. The answer to that letter was like a miracle for it told us that they had sent a letter to our old home 26 Albany rd on July 12th and it was returned to them “not known” (you see dear, the house had changed hands twice since we sold it) so the War Graves Commission sent us a copy of the letter, and it told us the news that a body of an unknown soldier had been found near Beaumont Hamel not far from Albert and that a disc found with it proved it was our darling boy and telling us where we could find his resting place. Oh! Jack dear what we went through!! Naturally it opened all the old wounds again but oh! how thankful to God we were that all this had happened and that we knew where our boy was laid. I will put the place on a separate piece of paper for you to keep and remember in case in the future any of your young people should be over in France and be able to go there. Charlie and I went to our boy’s grave on Aug 5th by towing car, 130 miles each way. He lies in the last cemetery being made only of wooden crosses as yet. I will enclose a picture we took at the time and will send a better one when stone is up and the cemetery finished. Of course Jack dear, what really happened to our dear boy, he was not destroyed but buried by the shell soil. That soil where he was found is chalky and therefore preserved his body. We even had sent to us by The War Office, his disc with name and no. plainly to be seen on it, also a long chain that I put on the dear boy’s neck when parting with him containing our photos (??? they had gone) and a silver toothpick and best of all his plain gold ring that he always wore which we gave him when he was 18 yrs. Isn’t this truly wonderful, Jack dear? Whoever found him was ever so honest we should never have known. And now my dear Charlie always wears it and will pass it on one day. They have allowed us to put a few words on the grave stone of our own and they are :-
In loving Memory “Till we meet again”
Mother and Dad.
These words are our Hope, for we know that this world with our great loves for another, is not the end. Alan Newell is not far from here, dear Jack, only about 4 miles. Alan lies in the Combles Cemetery and Jack in Serre Road Cemetery, between Arras and Albert. You might be able to find these places on a map of France. It was a really wonderful drive this 5th Aug. We went through Ypres, seeing the Menin Gate again and then over Vimy Ridge which has been bought by the Canadian Government. Charlie went down dugouts over 40 ft deep, made by the Canadians. Then we went over Thiepval Ridge and many other places on the road to Arras and Albert. We hope next summer to go and stay for a week-end near the spot where our dear boy lies, so as to go as often as we can while there. It is glorious the way the British War Graves Commission keep all the cemeteries of our dear soldiers. They are beautiful and full of roses and flowers. They are never forgotten. God bless them all.
Ever your loving sister,
Jack Baylis rests still in the Serre Road Cemetery No 2 along with 7127 young men, over 4000 of whom are unidentified. Ten of the marked graves were for men from Jack’s regiment – London Regiment (Queen’s Westminster Rifles) – who died on the same day as him. They were Ernest Newman (25), Adolf J. Beckman, Arthur Thomas Cottiss (19), Harold J Frostick, Eric R Branwhite (21), Frederic W Holt (21), Walter J Prestage (39), William A Ireland (20), Ernest Bertram Lane (25), Thomas Sydney Donovan (21).
‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the Mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.
Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told some poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt.
For while he couched and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.
He’d thought how “Jack”, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night that mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.
I am so grateful to Chef Nancy Lee, my dear cousin in Fort Lauderdale, for sending me this letter.