Dead Man’s Pennies
In the hand, two red discs,
Stamped with the names of brothers
Killed five weeks apart at the Somme.
They weigh almost nothing
Creating the Centena.
For years we’d had a box in our attic containing mementos of my husband’s two great-great uncles, killed at the Somme. We knew nothing about their mother, Sarah Hyde, but the fact that she had preserved every trace of Samuel and Thomas, including the identity tags retrieved from their bodies, communicated her anguish even at a century’s distance.
Military records showed that Sam served with the Cameron Highlanders and was killed in action on 12 August 1916 aged 26; his brother Tom, aged 23, was with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and died five weeks later on 15 September. Both had volunteered in Burton-on-Trent earlier that year, part of Kitchener’s New Army.
Sarah, a widowed mother of six, had kept an official photograph of the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, which commemorates more than 72,000 soldiers. A retired couple, Ken and Pam Linge, are compiling a Thiepval database, and provided me with scans of newspaper cuttings relating to the Hyde brothers. One quoted from a letter to Sarah from Sam’s commanding officer: “I feel his death very much as he had made himself a favourite with everyone and was a splendid soldier.”
Sam, a machine gunner, had been mown down in a night-time attack on the Switch Line. Tom, meanwhile, was killed in the battle for Flers-Courcelette, an action that in one morning claimed 360 casualties from his battalion alone. I spent a day in the Imperial War Museum’s archives and was able to unearth more details about both these attacks; it was sobering to think that I now knew more than their mother ever did.
With the help of the Magic Attic archive in Swadlincote, South Derbyshire, I built up a picture of the brothers’ pre-war lives, manufacturing sanitary pipes amid yawning clay pits and smoking kilns – described by one former worker as “a lunar landscape with a touch of Hades”. Perhaps the trenches felt less alien to them than to many others. The local war memorial records 122 names, 78 of them, including Sam and Tom, former pupils of the same school. Sarah, who also lost two nephews in the conflict, continued to place annual notices in the local newspaper in memory of her “beloved sons, ever remembered”. She carefully preserved the round bronze plaques made for every bereaved family and known as ‘dead man’s pennies’.
As I finished my research, I learnt of artist Rob Heard’s Shrouds of the Somme project. He has crafted a 12-inch figure for every soldier killed at the Somme with no known grave, and as he wrapped each one in a hand-stitched shroud, he spoke the name of one of the dead, so that every man was individually acknowledged and remembered. The tens of thousands of shrouded figures, including those of Samuel and Thomas Hyde, are to be laid out in rows in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in November. It feels like the funeral they never had, and I only wish I could tell Sarah.
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