Forget-me-nots A special encounter
Bryan James recalls a very special encounter.
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.