Wednesday, May 9, 2018

An Only Son's Dying Lament


Becourt British Military Cemetery, France
Some of the most heart-breaking remembrances of the Great War are carved in stone: the epitaphs that appear on the headstones of British Commonwealth graves.  Families were allowed to choose an inscription limited to 66 characters; the following examples appear in Sarah Wearne’s book Epitaphs of the Great War:

Dear Happy Boy
            — Second Lieutenant James Douglas Harding, aged 17
A Mother’s Love Lies Here
            —Private William Ogston Craib, aged 28
If This Is Victory, Then Let God Stop All Wars, His Loving Mother
            —Private Frank Hitchin, aged 18
Here Lies a Father’s Hope, A Mother’s Pride, and a Wife’s Dependence
            — Private John Prentice, aged 27

Vivian Telfer Pemberton, a twenty-four-year-old officer with the Royal Garrison Artillery’s 216th Siege Battalion, was awarded the Military Cross in the summer of 1918: “When the enemy had broken through he kept his guns in action until the last possible moment, and when forced to withdraw them organised his men so that they kept up a steady rifle fire on the enemy.  His coolness and courage saved a most critical situation.”*  The title of his poem “An Only Son’s Dying Lament” references the courage required by those on the home front to bear the immense losses of the war, while the poem’s final stanza concludes with an unromanticized depiction of the suffering of the soldiers.

An Only Son’s Dying Lament

I’m not a soldier born and bred,
I hate the sound of guns,
I joined because they told me
England needed all her sons.

Operating on a slightly wounded man
in a regimental aid post
Austin O. Spare © IWM (ART 2766)
I love old England’s country scenes,
The old cliffs by the sea,
The peaceful, mist-clad Devon moors,
‘Tis there that I would be.

I love the gentle English girls,
I love their graceful ways,
I love to watch the sheep dog’s work,
And the lazy cattle graze.

They used to give me all I asked
In those dear days of old,
They gave me wine, they gave me love,
And never asked for gold. 

But now I do not ask for love,
For riches, wine, or song,
They tell me that I’ll soon be well,
But I know they are wrong.

A stretcher party brought me here,
My left leg hurt like sin,
They sent my pay-book and my gold
Back to my next of kin.

It is not much for which I ask,
I know my knell has rung,
But they will not give me anything
To cool my burning tongue.
            —Vivian Telfer Pemberton

Vivian Pemberton was not an only son, but rather the youngest of three boys born to George and Isabella Pemberton; all three sons fought in the Great War.  The oldest, Oswald, was killed on December 21, 1914.** Vivian’s twin, Alexander Lancaster Pemberton, served at Gallipoli and survived the war, but Vivian was killed in action during the Hundred Days Offensive on October 7, 1918.  He is buried at Bellicourt British Cemetery.  The headstone inscription chosen by his family reads, “To the Loving Memory of a Noble Son.”
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* Supplement to the Edinburgh Gazette, July 29, 1918, p. 2705
** “Captain Oswald Pemberton,” Imperial War Museum Lives of the First World War, https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/3464979.
† “Major Alexander Lancaster Pemberton, Imperial War Museum Lives of the First World War, https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/3464550.

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