DAY 77
Rowena Roberts

Unwritten: Conflict in a dugout grave

100 days
100 lives
100 words

My dear Nellie.
I linger for eternity on
My final thoughts.
The shriek and thunk of skull-shredding shells – these are not what I should tell you.

“It’s the tiny ripples of awareness generated by creative undertakings such as the 26 Armistice Project that make them so valuable, reminding us to look more closely at our surroundings, for everywhere there’s a story untold.” Rowena Roberts

Creating the Centena

Like, for example, discovering that I’d lived ten minutes’ walk away from Southern Cemetery in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester, since 2004, without never knowing that it housed a First World War memorial museum.

Manchester Postal Museum is a commemorative exhibition on display in the diminutive wooden Remembrance Lodge at the cemetery’s entrance on Barlow Moor Road. Manchester City Council’s Bereavement Services allows the lodge to be used for this purpose, and it’s open daily to anyone wishing to pay their respects.

I took a quiet walk through the cemetery in search of the lodge one clear Spring morning, pausing to observe and honour the large screen wall memorial dedicated to the 803 First World War graves of Commonwealth service personnel that lie here. Nearby, the backs of black iron-wrought benches show soldiers’ silhouettes carrying military gear across the barbed wire of the trenches, offset by iron poppies painted a brilliant red.

As I passed among the graves, I noticed a few white A4 pages attached to the gnarled trunks of ancient trees; they were printed simply and without adornment with the emotive poems of Wilfred Owen. This was the work of David Harrop: avid local postal and military historian, and champion of Manchester Postal Museum.

Most of the Museum’s content belongs to David, who has purchased and collated several commemorative collections and exhibitions at his own personal expense. David also introduced me to his George Davison Memorial Archive, an incredible collection of memorabilia from the family of George Davison, who fought and died in the First World War – and is now the subject of my centena.

The heart and soul of the archive is the multitude of letters written to his wife – 'My dear Nellie' as he invariably addressed her – between 1915 and 1918
Rowena Roberts

George Davison with wife Nellie and son Duncan, taken in 1916
© David Harrop, from his collection: The George Davison Memorial Archive

However, there are also letters from his courtship, documents such as school reports, medals, and, perhaps most poignantly, his last will and testament, scrawled on a single sheet of lined notepaper and witnessed by fellow members of the Royal Artillery.

I learned more about George and the wider context of Manchester and Mancunians in the First World War from another local historian, Andrew Simpson, to whose book, Manchester: Remembering 1914-18, I am also indebted.

I was struck by the loveliness and ordinariness of George Davison; of the simplicity and endurance of love between man and wife; of the unique challenges of maintaining family life in the face of untold terrors and pressures. Untold terrors indeed: George’s letters focused on domestic concerns and minor grievances of military life, rather than the horrors of trench warfare.

It seemed to me, reading these letters, that sometimes it’s the untold stories that need to be imagined and brought to life, if we are to learn their lessons fully.

For learn them we must. Lest we forget.

About the author

Rowena Roberts

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With special thanks

This centena was completed with the support of David Harrop, avid local postal and military historian, and champion of Manchester Postal Museum, and local historian Andrew Simpson, author of Manchester: Remembering 1914-18

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About 26

26 is a group of writers whose purpose is to inspire a greater love of words in business and in life. Find out more