The Penultimate Man by Malcolm Hollingdrake

26th September 2018 is clearly marked on my calendar and has been for some time. It will be a day filled with mixed emotions, a day to reflect and to put into perspective the life I have been fortunate to live. I shall also remember, not only my deceased father, William and the paternal links forged to a day one hundred years ago, but one other man, a man I never met but a man who shared the same name, my father’s uncle.


Private William Hollingdrake died on 26th September 1918 at the age of thirty. He had survived the hell of the previous years’ battles in the war that was to end all wars but at or near Flesquières his life ended. The man from Bolton Woods, Bradford, was so close to coming home.


My ferry is booked and I shall make that same journey, a pilgrimage, to Calais and then towards Cambrai. Once there I shall drive the country lanes once lined with trenches, towards Bertincourt for there in the grounds of Bertincourt Châteaux is the small cemetery and a white Portland headstone marking his final resting place for a century. I shall remember him.


I have never seen a photograph of my great uncle and he was never really spoken of, certainly not by my grandfather who seemed to me as a child both bitter and without humour. Grandfather was a man who had lost two brothers in those battles and he, because of a quarrying accident and the loss of an eye, could not travel with them. What would I give to spend an hour in his company today to receive the answers to my many questions that are now lost?

Strangely, I feel as though I have seen his spirit. Let me explain. I was given three books telling firsthand, eyewitness accounts of those days in the trenches. I searched the books and stared into the faces of the photographs… ‘I Was There’, the books’ titles gave little away until one evening on turning a page I discovered an old, pink bus ticket, a page marker that proved to be truly pertinent. I rotated the book to put the photograph of a large, unruly collection of soldiers the right way up. They all seemed to be pushing to be closer to the camera, some waving mugs, others their tin hats, some smiling, but many carrying an expression of futility enhanced by the abominable emotional stress they had regularly experienced. It was there that I found it, the face to which I could immediately attach a name. The man seemed relaxed, somewhat out of place, possibly older than the rest, neither smiling nor anxious. He simply stared directly into the lens; straight back at me with an air of confidence and maybe a touch of arrogance as if he were putting a name to a face.

Although it is many years since my grandfather’s death, I still hold a memory of his face. He had no features that resembled the sepia soldier. Was it all in my imagination? The foolishness of youth maybe, looking for a link to a mysterious past, a lifeline no matter how cotton thin? The books were closed as time marched on. They remained unopened and boxed as my sands of time collected more faces, the names lost as the grains squeezed through the tight, central, glass neck of the timer, never to be knowingly reattached.


2014 proved to be significant in more ways than one. The books were retrieved from their cardboard tomb. It was time to be reacquainted with World War One on the centenary of its dreadful beginning. For one man born in 1888, it had a greater significance. By this date, aged twenty-six, he would have been no callow youth, probably established, apprenticeship well completed, maybe married with children, definitely patriotic, keen to be with the Pals, eager to join workmates, neighbours, rich and poor. All were enthusiastic to do their bit for king and country. All wanted to give the Bosch a bloody nose before it was all over.

The newsreels show their anticipation of an adventure that would alleviate the drudgery of daily life, enable them to see, smell and taste a foreign land. No anticipation of the dangers. Everyone was behind them, ‘The women of England say go!’ Each man was keen to do his duty.

The nameless faces marched into oblivion, to be turned to vapour, to be choked and to be blinded by gas, to be sucked slowly into the suffocating Somme mud. We know that they would all suffer unimaginable conditions we today cannot comprehend.

The bus ticket still held the page and they were all still there, alive at the brief moment when the pendulum of time was held. The face too stared out, calling. Did I know his name, this mysterious yet somehow familiar face? I held a photograph of my father in uniform, taken in Dusseldorf in 1945. He was twenty-five. This too was sepia. The eyes stared out, familiar, warm and part of me. The similarity with the mystery ‘Tommy’ was staggering. Could both of these men have the same name? Had I found my father’s uncle staring out of these pages?

William Hollingdrake was buried at Bertincourt Châteaux Cemetery and the photograph was taken at Flesquières only fifteen miles away and the centre of a number of fierce battles. Pieces were beginning to fall into place.

The more I looked, the more this man became part of me. I attached the name but that put me in the same position as a visage Svengali, they know the face and they know the name, they can swiftly attach one to the other but they know little of the man. For me this is my sadness. How I should have liked to have met him. I have the bus ticket protecting the page, I have the man and I have the name but deep down I hold a regret that I will never know him.


In memory of William, I have published a short story, ‘The Penultimate Man’. It is set on the last day of the war in 1918. It has the support of The Royal British Legion and all author royalties will be donated to the Poppy Appeal. There will also be an audiobook narrated by Nicholas Camm who has expertly covered the first five Bennett books.

By downloading either you will be supporting a very worthwhile charity during a very important year, a year where I shall lay to rest a ghost.

Thank you.


Lest We Forget



Leave a Reply