Hello everyone. I am sure many of you will have watched the programmes on television recently commemorating those who fought in the Battle of the Somme. It made me think once more about my grandfather (mum’s father) one of the lucky ones who returned from the battlefield, a hero, as they all were. When I wrote ‘Christmas at the Ragdoll Orphanage’ I wanted to share his story and as I began to write the strangest thing happened. I always listen to music when I am writing, I find it stirs my emotions and somehow brings the words to life. I always try to find a piece of music that is appropriate to what I am describing. As I sat at the keyboard ready to write trying to decide what to listen to, my husband switched on the radio. As the music began I closed my eyes and thought how beautiful it was and I asked my husband if he knew what the piece of music was. ‘Adagio for Strings’ he told me. I went straight to You Tube and began listening to it. As the music inspired me I wrote about my granddads experiences at the Somme and of his life at that time. It was some time later when I was finished writing ‘battles’ I discovered Samuel Barber’s haunting and emotive masterpiece was played to commemorate those who fought and fell at the Battle of the Somme. I would like to share his story with you now. I hope you enjoy it.
Ernest Harmer was twenty one years old and facing what he believed would be one of the hardest days of his life. Nothing would ever compare to this – or so he thought. It was the waiting that was hard, the not knowing what it would feel like when the time came. They were fighting for King and country and, of course, they were going to win. It would be over in no time, they were well prepared. Or so they were told.
Ernest thought about Anne, his wife of only ten months, at home now, waiting for him to return. They planned to have children, lots of them she had said laughing. He would be home soon, when this was over. Anne had been so worried, those days before he left. She knew what it was like to lose someone close, two of her sister had died of tuberculosis. She was not going to lose her young husband and Ernest would look after Anne when he got back. Everything would be alright. It had to be.
Ernest looked around him. Thousands of men and young boys. He smiled as he looked over at Albert, the youngest of the group who was looking a little pale at the moment, the hands that held his rifle shaking slightly. Albert’s parents were proud of their son. In years to come his mother’s eyes would stray again and again to the medal next to her son’s photograph on the well-polished mantelpiece and she would say to anyone who would listen that the Battle of the Somme took not only her beloved son but her dreams of grandchildren and a house filled with laughter. She would never get over the loss.
Today Ernest was ready. They all were. Even the least religious were heard to whisper, God be with us. God bless us, and for some simply, in the moments before battle commenced, God help us. He stood now, head held high and as the whistle blew Ernest Benjamin Harmer took his first steps over the top on a hot summer’s day on 1st July 1916 launching himself into the Battle of the Somme.
Twenty thousand men died that day and thousands more were injured. But the battle went on. On and on the men trudged, feet sliding in the mud, fighting on and on, the gunfire deafening and bodies all around. By November, Ernest had almost forgotten what it felt like to be home; he was tired and hungry and his heart was heavy, his spirit broken. He no longer even thought about home and tried especially hard not to think of Anne. Each day was just another day to be survived, another day when his time in this battle might come to an end. The men were returning to the trenches when Ernest spotted him, an officer, lying in the mud, his eyes open, pleading. Ernest was not about to leave this man behind. Tramping through the mud, slipping and sliding he knelt down and lifted him up with a strength borne out of sheer necessity, and he carried the officer from the battlefield on his back. He saved the officer’s life. It was one act of bravery amongst so many.
On his return home Ernest Harmer was awarded a medal for his bravery. He was badly injured and the war was over for him but there would be more, personal, battles to be fought in his lifetime.
Ernest worked hard in the coalmines and he and Anne managed as best they could, along with everyone else. Their first child, Michael was born in 1918, Nancy two years later and Margaret a year after that. A second son, Ernest Benjamin was born in 1926 and a third daughter Mary in 1928. Anne suffered a stillbirth, a daughter, violet in 1924.
It was the beginning of December 1929 and Anne’s thoughts were turning to Christmas. She wasn’t feeling at all well but she had been cleaning for days and the house was spotless. Nancy and Margaret had been a great help as always. There was a quiet kindness to Nancy, Anne always thought. It seemed to radiate from her. She was only 9 years old but she just had a way with her, especially with the younger ones, Benny and Mary. You never really knew was she was thinking but there was definitely a stubborn streak there somewhere. Nancy and Margaret were as different as chalk and cheese. Margaret was always in trouble but Anne could never be angry with her for long; she made her mother laugh and always had a story to tell. And the boys, they were growing up so quickly, poor Benny back and forth to hospital but thankfully the others seemed fit and well. She was grateful for that even though the pain of losing Violet would never quite go away.
Ernest was working hard, so there should be a good dinner for them this Christmas. There would also be little gifts, not much, but enough to make the day special for the children. She hoped Benny would be home for Christmas. He was in hospital again, but she would call them tomorrow and see what could be done. She wanted all her children together at home on Christmas Day. A proper family Christmas.
It had started snowing outside and the children were playing upstairs, squealing with delight. If it settled they’d be out playing in it tomorrow. Anne had taught the girls how to make paper chains and decorate stockings to hang up for Santa on Christmas Eve. It was very early; barely December yet paper chains were already being hung all around the room, such was the excitement this year. Anne smiled as she sank into her favourite chair. She really wasn’t feeling her best. The older children were happy upstairs, Mary having her nap so she could afford to sit down, just for a little while.
The snow continued throughout December, and there was indeed enough money for a lovely Christmas dinner. Anne got her wish and the children were all home for Christmas Day. Unfortunately, Anne was not there to celebrate with them.
Ernest was left alone that Christmas with his children having lost the wife that he adored. A new battle was just beginning.