For­get-me-nots A spe­cial en­counter

Bryan James re­calls a very spe­cial en­counter.

This England - - Contents - Bryan James

COM­MON­WEALTH War Graves Com­mis­sion. St Au­bert Bri­tish Ceme­tery. Plot I.B.16. The above ref­er­ence is of the grave of Lieu­tenant Percy Marston Sim­mons, late of the Wilt­shire Reg­i­ment. He died in ac­tion Oc­to­ber 20, 1918, 22 days be­fore the cease­fire.

He was from a vil­lage be­tween Gloucester and Tewkes­bury and was my pa­ter­nal grand­mother’s favourite brother and by far the favourite un­cle of my fa­ther and his two broth­ers.

Of course, I never knew my great-un­cle Percy, but I heard so much about him it felt as though I did, as he was never far from the mem­o­ries of his fam­ily and friends.

He was clearly a pretty spe­cial man, hugely pop­u­lar, an ex­cel­lent all-round sports­man both in coun­try pur­suits and on the sports field.

He played rugby and was a keen crick­eter. He and oth­ers in his rugby club started, round about the year 1900, what be­came a very suc­cess­ful cricket club called the Gloucester Non­de­scripts.

I don’t know when he joined up dur­ing WWI, but as he was still a lieu­tenant I sus­pect he vol­un­teered late, as he was thirty-six when he died and prob­a­bly shouldn’t have been in the Forces at all.

The cir­cum­stances of his death were well known and wit­nessed. It would have been part of a scene played out many times dur­ing the hor­ren­dous trench war­fare in that sense­less, dread­ful con­flict.

On Oc­to­ber 20, 1918, Percy led his men over the top in yet an­other of those fruit­less charges at the Ger­man lines that cost so many tens of thou­sands of lives and gained noth­ing.

It was into the usual hail of ma­chine­gun bul­lets, mor­tars and shells ex­plod­ing all round them and, as was al­most al­ways the case, they had to fall back to their own trenches with­out get­ting near the en­emy.

On his way back to the lines Percy saw three of his men ly­ing in­jured but alive. He picked one up and car­ried him back to his trench and left him for the medics to at­tend to.

He then went out again, into the ma­chine-gun fire and amid ex­plod­ing shells, and found one of the other two of his in­jured com­rades and car­ried him back to safety. Then, in spite of his men beg­ging him not to, he went out yet again to res­cue the third. That time was once too many and he was killed.

Fast for­ward some 30-odd years to 1949. I’d left school and, want­ing to con­tinue play­ing cricket, it was nat­u­ral that I would chose to join the Non­de­scripts.

Af­ter a trial in the nets I was ac­cepted and spent my first year out of school play­ing for the side orig­i­nally formed by my great-un­cle Percy and his friends.

In the au­tumn of that year I at­tended the AGM and, af­ter the meet­ing was over, some­one came up to me.

“Those two men sit­ting over there want a word with you.”

I’d never seen them be­fore but went over to them. They looked me up and down and then one said, “You’re Ron’s boy?”

I ad­mit­ted that was my fa­ther’s name and af­ter an­other pause they started ask­ing me if I knew about my great-un­cle Percy Sim­mons. Did I know how, in the Great War, he’d saved the lives of two men and lost his own life try­ing to save an­other?

I ad­mit­ted that I did know and had heard the story sev­eral times. There was an­other longish pause, then one of them spoke. “We are the two he saved.” In that mo­ment, my great-un­cle Percy was sud­denly very close and I am not ashamed to ad­mit that I left those two old sol­diers with tears in my eyes.

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