Do you believe in fate? Of hidden forces drawing people together? I do after my latest Great War pilgrimage.
I recently went over to Belgium and France and timed the visit to coincide with two of my Hill family death anniversaries. Jesse Hill, who died on 19 September 1915 and is buried at Ypres Reservoir; and Percy Hill who died, according to soldiers’ effects records, at 2/1 South Midland Casualty Clearing Station on 30 September 1916. Percy is buried at Warloy-Baillon Community Cemetery Extension, just to the west of Albert.
Last year when visiting Jesse, on the centenary of his death, I narrowly missed meeting a relative for the first time. Two poppy crosses and the visitors book showed we’d paid our respects at Jesse’s grave within hours of each other. That was coincidence enough, but nothing in comparison to what happened this year.Chris (my husband) and I spent a few days in Ypres before driving to Avesnes Le Sec, near Cambrai, to stay with an “old” school friend for the weekend (sorry about the “old” Anne, but it applies to me too). We finished the final leg of our visit on the Somme, initially at the wonderful “No 56” b&b then at the “Royal Picardie” hotel in Albert for the last two nights. The only reason we transferred to Albert was because the b&b only had availability for three nights.
The early evening of 28 September we finished another long day of walking by stopping off at the beautiful Authuile Military Cemetery, in the village of Authuille (note the spelling difference).
I love this tranquil cemetery with its feeling of peace and calm, and its eye-pleasingly curving layout of headstones sloping down to the river Ancre. An odd thing to say, but it’s probably my favourite cemetery. It is also the final resting place of Pte Willie Barber of the 1/4th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) one of the parishioners at Batley St Mary’s who I spent so much time researching.As we wandered down to the bottom slopes of the cemetery I noticed another visitor. This was unusual, as it was getting on and the cemetery isn’t one people normally beat a path to the door of. By the time we got to the top she had gone.
I sort of wondered if she was here to see Willie, one of those flights of fancy about impossible coincidences. I’m always a bit over-focussed on the St Mary’s men I researched. But there was nothing in the visitors book to indicate why she’d been there. That was the end of that, or so I thought. A chance to find out lost.
The following day we checked into our Albert hotel. Whilst in town sitting outside a café drinking coffee we saw the lady again. But again never spoke.
And then on 30 September, the anniversary of Percy’s death, we went down to our first breakfast in the hotel and she was there with her mum. This time we did speak. She was over for the centenary of her great grandfather’s death, that very day. The same day as Percy Hill. 30 September.
We talked a bit more, and amazingly discovered both Percy and her ancestor, Jonathan Pearson, were in the same battalion, 1/4th KOYLI. Both died of wounds and both received their injuries during the same period of duty in the trenches near Ulster Tower in mid-September. She had followed Jonathan’s footsteps for those few final frontline days and was on her way across to Boulogne to his grave on his death anniversary, before returning home to the south of England that evening.
She had photos of Jonathan. I had some of Percy, including group photos with some of his pals. And amazingly on one of these photos was a man who looked remarkably like Jonathan. Same colouring, same features including distinctive nose and cut of hair.
We couldn’t believe it. 100 years to the exact day of their deaths we were in a hotel in Albert staring at a picture of what appears to be both men together. It was is if some unseen force had been pulling us together for the past couple of days, starting at Authuile Military Cemetery where fellow 1/4th KOYLI soldier Willie Barber is buried, finally uniting us on the centenary of their death. An incredible, earth-stopping realisation. And if the b&b had been available for the final two days of my visit I wouldn’t have even been in the Albert hotel. A week later and I still can’t believe it.
We parted promising to pass on Jonathan and Percy’s regards at their respective final resting places, around some 90 miles apart.
And so onto Warloy-Baillon. We stopped at Ulster Tower en route and found the poppy cross Jonathan’s family had laid in the area of the KOYLI trenches of mid September 1916. We saw the Pope’s Nose, the German salient with a decaying relic of a observation post/gun emplacement, which was the focus of their trench raids in that period.
We were at Percy Hill’s grave for 1.15pm, the minute is death is recorded. And there, at around 2pm, we met with David Short and his wife Pauline, the relative I so narrowly missed meeting just over a year ago at Jesse Hill’s grave. And in a final piece of symmetry David is from the north east of England, not Yorkshire, the same area from which Jonathan hailed.