‘A prom­ise fu­filled’

ALEC GRA­HAM TELLS JOHN MAN­NING ABOUT A JOUR­NEY TO FRANCE TO HON­OUR TWO FAM­ILY MEM­BERS LOST IN THE GREAT WAR AND FUL­FIL A PROM­ISE TO HIS LATE MUM

Fingal Independent - - NEWS SPECIAL -

AS we head to­wards the 100th an­niver­sary of the end of World War I a Bal­brig­gan man has taken a per­sonal jour­ney to France to hon­our two mem­bers of his fam­ily who fought and died in the Great War and above all, ful­fil a prom­ise to his late mother. Two years be­fore his mother’s death, Alec Gra­ham from Bal­brig­gan talked with his mum about two cousins she had that fought in the Great War and never came home.

As Alec lis­tened to the story and his mother’s re­gret at hav­ing not vis­ited their graves, Alec made a prom­ise to his mum, say­ing if he ever got the chance, he would go to France and place flow­ers on the two sol­diers’ graves in her name.

Alec’s mother died two years ago and more re­cently, the Bal­brig­gan man was sit­ting at home watch­ing a doc­u­men­tary about World War I and the mem­ory of that prom­ise was sparked.

Alec re­mem­bered: ‘I was sit­ting down one day and I was watch­ing Sky. I wasn’t pay­ing too much at­ten­tion to it, I was read­ing the pa­per, but it was a doc­u­men­tary about the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele in Bel­gium in World War I and it just re­minded me of the prom­ise I made to my mother to put flow­ers on the grave of her two cousins.

‘At that mo­ment, I de­cided I was go­ing to go to France and find their graves.

‘I rang my sis­ter, Ethel there and then and told her I was go­ing to go to France and find these graves and she said she would come with me. It kind of snow­balled then and six of us went.’

Alec ex­plained that one side of his mother’s fam­ily were Protes­tants and so the lo­cal Church of Ire­land in Bal­brig­gan was a good place to start the search for the two men’s graves.

Be­tween that visit and Ethel’s en­quiries with the War Graves Com­mis­sion, they found out some ba­sic de­tails about the two sol­diers and the cir­cum­stances of their death and burial.

First there was Lieu­tenant Ernest Den­nis El­lis, of the 4 th Batal­lion, Be­fod­shire Reg­i­ment.

Ernest was killed on Septem­ber 27, 1918 whilst lead­ing his com­pany across the Canal du Nord, France and sub­se­quently has his re­mains in­terred in the Bri­tish Ceme­tery of Moeu­vres.

He was the youngest son of David A El­lis and An­nie El­lis of Bal­brig­gan.

They there was Richard Thomas Den­nis. a 2nd Liu­tenant of the Royal Ir­ish Ri­fles, at­tached to the 5th Northum­ber­land Fusiliers.

He wsa the only son of Richard and Mar­i­anne Den­nis of Bal­brig­gan and ac­tu­ally sur­vived the war, only to die of Span­ish Flu be­fore he ever got home.

He was wounded and taken pris­oner at Mon tigny on May 28, 1918 and died at Wimereux on De­cem­ber 19, 1918 on his re­turn from Ras­tatt, Ger­many af­ter be­ing lib­er­ated from a pris­o­noer of war camp, aged just 19 years.

His re­mains were in­terred at Ter­lingthun Ceme­tery, Boulogne.

Armed with this in­for­ma­tion and more, Alec and his fam­ily set off for France and en­gaged World War I ex­pert, John An­der­son to be their guide.

Alec told the Fin­gal In­de­pen­dent: ‘We had all the in­for­ma­tion we wanted and we booked our flights. I said we should get a guide over there to help us out.

‘We got on the in­ter­net and hired a fel­low called John An­der­son who turned out to be an au­thor of a book on World War I. He’s an English­man but has been liv­ing in France for the last 11 years.

‘He came back to us with a pro­gramme and ar­ranged ev­ery­thing.

‘He picked us up and brought us to the graves. He brought us to the spot where Ernest was shot and var­i­ous other places.’

‘He brought us to Ernest’s grave. It was very emo­tional. We bought pop­pies there and laid them on the grave and we put a me­mo­rial card for my mother on the grave as well. It was very emo­tional.

‘A few of us were very up­set leav­ing the grave and look­ing back at this grave in France where there was now a pic­ture of your mother.’

Alec was struck by the re­spect and rev­er­ence with which the graves are kept.

He said: ‘The graves are kept im­pec­ca­bly. You have to give great credit to the peo­ple who look af­ter them.

‘There is a lit­tle taber­na­cle and you open it up and take out this book that has a record of all the graves. You find the name you are look­ing for and it di­rects you to the plot. And there’s a vis­i­tor’s book that you can sign your name to so we all did that and we left a phone num­ber too just in case some­one ever came along there that are re­lated to them too and they might give us a call.

‘I wrote on the card: ‘Mam, a prom­ise ful­filled.’ It was very emo­tional, very, very emo­tional.’

Be­cause Richard was head­ing for home, his grave was much fur­ther north, near Calais and that is where the Bal­brig­gan fam­ily headed next.

Alec tried to imag­ine what it must have been like for Richard’s mother back then who would have, over a num­ber of months had re­ports he was miss­ing, then pre­sumed dead, then cap­tured and alive, then lib­er­ated, and fi­nally, dead from Span­ish Flu.

He said: ‘His mother would have been told he was miss­ing in ac­tion then af­ter six months she would have been told he was pre­sumed dead. But later they found he was in a pris­oner of war camp and his mother would have been told that he wasn’t dead af­ter all. He was lib­er­ated from the camp and that mes­sage would have got back to his mother but then he died on the way home.’

But at least, he said, he was there in a marked grave with his name on it where rows and rows of

‘un­known sol­diers’ lay un­known, un­claimed

and unloved.

He said: ‘There is rows and rows of graves of the ‘un­known sol­dier’. It is heart­break­ing.’

The fam­ily had that same emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence at the se­cond grave and again, Alec left a me­mo­rial card with his mother’s pic­ture

on the grave­side -- his mis­sion to hon­our a prom­ise was com­plete.

The trip had one more mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence

in store when the fam­ily got a taste of what it must have been like to be in the trenches.

In a pre­served trench, just like it would have been 100 years ago, the fam­ily and oth­ers

were in­vited down.

Alec said: ‘Down we went about 20 of us. They switched off the lights so we just had the same amount of light they had.

‘We the bat­tal­ion that used the trench were

to at­tack at 5am or 6am this morn­ing on a cer­tain date.

‘They were all down there ready to go and it was post­poned. They couldn’t get back out again, they would make too much noise.

‘So they had to sit there, with­out food, with­out wa­ter, no toi­lets and they couldn’t speak.

‘It’s un­real when you’re sit­ting there.’ Novem­ber is com­ing and Ire­land’s awk­ward re­la­tion­ship with World War I and the wear­ing of the poppy in par­tic­u­lar will no

doubt sur­face in de­bate once again.

For Alec, there is no de­bate. Although he says he can see the is­sue ‘from both sides’, he

will proudly wear the poppy this year and com­mem­o­rate two brave Bal­brig­gan man who gave their lives in the Great War.

He will re­mem­ber their sac­ri­fice, what they went through in the trenches and he will re­mem­ber his mother’s re­spect for them

and the wish she had to have them hon­oured and re­mem­bered in the way that Alec and his

fam­ily achieved, ear­lier this year.

It is sad to re­late that although Alec would

love to see a per­ma­nent me­mo­rial to the sol­diers and per­haps oth­ers from Bal­brig­gan

who made the same sac­ri­fice, he fears it would

be­come a tar­get for van­dals.

But hav­ing vis­ited the grave­side of the two sol­diers, Alec is as­sured they will be re­mem­bered for­ever and he will cer­tainly do ev­ery­thing he can to keep their mem­o­ries alive.

Alec said the trip has given him a new found in­ter­est not only in fam­ily his­tory but

the his­tory of the war it­self.

He says he hopes to re­turn to the World

War I bat­tle­fields and ceme­ter­ies and re­visit

the graves of his long-lost cousins.

‘I just wanted to give a lit­tle bit of recog­ni­tion to these two men and ful­fil a prom­ise to my mother,’ Alec said fi­nally. He suc­ceeded

in do­ing both.

ALEC TRIED TO IMAG­INE WHAT IT MUST HAVE BEEN LIKE FOR RICHARD’S MOTHER BACK THEN WHO WOULD HAVE, OVER A NUM­BER OF MONTHS HAD RE­PORTS HE WAS MISS­ING, THEN PRE­SUMED DEAD, THEN CAP­TURED AND ALIVE, THEN LIB­ER­ATED, AND FI­NALLY, DEAD FROM SPAN­ISH FLU.

Ethel Matthews, Alec Gra­ham, Rita Den­nis and Linda Gra­ham at a World War I ceme­tery in France.

Alec Gra­ham back home in Bal­brig­gan.

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