Unwritten: Conflict in a dugout grave
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.
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.
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
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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