‘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
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
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.