The invisible soldier

I edited a book this summer and loved it. It was about the history of the LDS church in the St Albans area, but really it was about family history. I spent afternoon after afternoon looking at cracked and grainy photos of family groups, fascinated: Victorians in ruffled collars, navy men, women in fur coats with luminous eyes. And then there was Ernest.

There were two of Ernest, taken at the same time: one by himself, and the other with his wife and four tiny children. He is in his early thirties. He has a pencil moustache. His army uniform is so new you can almost see the starch. They took the photos, and then he left for the trenches. I imagine they took them in case that was the last piece of him they had.

It wasn’t, thankfully. He was lucky, or as lucky as you get when you’ve served at the Front. He came back, had another baby, resumed his life. He had a beautiful tenor voice, and sang in the choir. But his health was bad, now. Nine years after coming home from the mud and filth and gunfire, he was dead at 43. His oldest boy was fourteen, his baby only three. There are stories then about his son, forced to be the man of the house in his early teens. There are photos of them all as adults: the mother, the daughters, the son who had to take his father’s place before he was ready. The space where Ernest should be.

I read it, pushed away my computer, and sobbed, heartbroken. I won’t ever find Ernest’s name on a memorial, but the war came to find him just as surely as it found the boys in the fields. And so his wife, and his son, and his daughters were victims too. The war – this war, and all our wars – left fractures everywhere. So many of them were invisible, but no less painfully felt.

And so I find myself wearing a poppy this Remembrance Sunday because there are things I would say to Ernest if I could. I would tell him I was grateful. I would tell him that the life I lead is directly thanks to the choice he made to defend it. I would tell him they probably missed his voice like anything in the choir.

I would tell him that I remember.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!
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