Private 48169. My Great Uncle Michael Maughan Renwick. Died aged 17 in Ypres, on the 11th April 1918.
Until two weeks ago I had never heard of this young man. Never knew that my grandfather’s brother had signed up for the war aged just 16, lying about his age to go and be a man for his country. I don’t know how long he fought for, but I do know his body was never found.
I recently signed up for 2 writing sessions at my local library, connected to a competition they run for which they are seeking stories of the Great War. Up until the day I attended the first session I’d assumed I had no relatives who’d fought in the conflict. A comment to my mum about the theme of the session provoked the recollection about Michael, who would have been her uncle. My grandfather – one of life’s gentle souls – never talked about the loss, although he would have been just 10 at the time. That generation simply didn’t discuss loss. He and my grandmother – one of life’s feisty souls! – also never talked about the death of their only son aged 8 days old. Instead they were content to adore their two strong willed daughters who are 11 years apart in age. I am glad I’ve had the opportunity to learn about Michael.
Sadly I have no photographs of him, but I have discovered a few mementoes, such as where he is memorialised amongst the missing dead at Ploegsteert Memorial in Belgium, a Commonwealth War Grave Memorial for those who fought at Ypres. It is a beautiful memorial – as Wilfred Owen would have perhaps said, Dulce Et Decorum Est. What is staggering to me is that he is just one name amongst 11,367 missing dead from the Great War who died in Belgium memorialised here.
I’ve written a story in memorial for him. I found doing so led to a very emotional journey for me, and I was aware that I needed to be respectful to his memory. We know so little about his motivations for signing up at the age of 16, for lying to become a soldier like so many young men did then. He was destined like both my grandparents to be a miner, in fact was already working in the pit and as an essential worker would have been exempted out of military recruitment even had he been of age. It’s been a strange couple of weeks, trying to imagine his journey, and the hopes and fears of this young man as he set out on what would be his last journey. To imagine the sadness and the grief that my great-grandmother must have felt, especially after losing her husband – Michael’s father – at a very young age. Here’s an excerpt, though it is still in second draft stage and needs a little more development:
The names have gone, receded with the night sky as the clouds clear and leave the light of a thousand silver stars to play on your face as your breath becomes shallower. There’s mud in your mouth, on your face, in what remains of your clothing. There is no rescue. The white knights are all dead or diseased and their noble steeds are frozen in mortis all around you. The artillery is getting closer, the battle field has no name. Ypres, Somme, Maretz, Ploegsteert. They’ve all been fought; all have their unknown soldier whose earthly remains have simply been absorbed by the land they fought for. A thousand, tens of thousands of young souls forever lost to their grieving families.
So this is where I’ve been, lost in the trenches of another man’s war. I’ll keep remembering though, keep thinking of the sacrifices made by so many – not just then but of all wars, all conflicts.
And on the 11th April 2018 I know where I’ll be. In a forgotten field in Belgium, to show that nothing’s forgotten.