At the West Dorset Parish of Powerstock’s 2013 Remembrance Sunday, the most remarkable verse from Laurence Binyon’s First World War poem For the Fallen was recited. It has been for almost a century: ‘They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them’. To which the congregation responded in unison: ‘We will remember them’.
The difference between now and then is that in 1920 the respondents were in a position to remember those lost because they had known them. It is not possible to remember what was previously unknown. The names of the eleven lost from the Parish, so solemnly read out in 2013, had been those of total strangers.
Michael Morpurgo contributed a feature to the Sunday Telegraph (June 29, 2014). ‘They are gone. Yet if ever a generation should be remembered it is this one.’ Morpurgo then developed his thesis to the effect: ‘But we do not remember them. Only their names are known to us now. Each will have had his own story, but many of their stories have died with them, unknown forever… we did not and can not know them’. Yes we can, and the concerned parishioners of Powerstock have done so.
In November 2013 a pledge was made that one year hence, at the Centenary Remembrance Sunday, the parish’s long forgotten servicemen would be both known and remembered. A book has been written, A Dorset Parish Remembers 1914- 1919, so that in future, when the parishioners say “we will remember them”, they would mean it.
The call went out through the valleys asking volunteers to come forward to adopt one of the lost eleven with a view to writing a short chapter on each man’s life and death. The result was the recruitment of 17 researchers- cum- writers, only one of whom had previously written a book. There were farmers, a musician, a former soldier and sailors, retired and serving teachers, a journalist and the owner of holiday accommodation. There are also two original, bespoke war poems, bound to bring tears to a duchess’s eyes.
The stories of the lost men are set in context, beginning with a commentary on the land they left behind, followed by examination of the rural community during the war years 1914- 1919. An answer is offered why these eleven men out of 107 were called from their quiet village homes to travel enormous distances to die. Two were killed on the Home Front, others on the Western Front, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Gallipoli, Jutland, Poona and Vladivostok. This was truly a world war giving rise to difficult questions in the chapter ‘Lest we Forget’ of the controversial subject of the repatriation of remains. A commentary on the 1914 truce is a thoughtful assessment drawn from multiple sources. The final mini- chapter provides a useful guide for anyone contemplating undertaking a similar exercise which turned out to be an inspirational community- building project.
In November 2013, the structure was laid out in order to achieve the aim. In addition to the writing group there was also a support group. The latter’s task included the trawling of genealogy sites, forces war records, regimental histories and contemporary newspapers. Additional tasks included the selection and enhancement of photographs and the editing of written submissions prior to their conversion to a pdf format as required by the printer selected as partner in the self- publishing project.
A narrow eight-month window of opportunity ruled out a conventional publisher, which meant accepting the burden of publicity and distribution ourselves. Nevertheless the target was met and the book delivered. At the outset, no one knew a Luftwaffe attack in September 1940 had destroyed two thirds of First World War soldiers’ personal documents.
The unique arrangement the parish made with the local newspaper, the Bridport News, fortuitously offset what might otherwise have been a disastrous turn of events. Every Thursday throughout the first quarter of 2014, each of the writers told the wider community what was known of his or her subject in a double page, illustrated centrefold article. It was known that within the wider community there were descendants who shared the same surnames as the deceased. No one needed reminding that this was a diminishing resource as informants also passed away. Not everyone could be persuaded to talk. Not easily were family skeletons going to be released from all the closets.
Where stories were freely given from this source, they often served to embroider the tapestry of the book in rich colours. Speaking of this experience, the newspaper’s senior reporter, Rene Gerryts admitted: “It has been a privilege to be involved”.
There is no point pretending that coming to this exercise a century late there will not be a variation in the amount of information and experience to be discovered. There is a maxim which reminds us that individual activity in the war was variable – ‘they also serve who only stand and wait’. Almost all the research is climbing upward from a zero base. One irredeemable fact flows from the understanding that there will not be a wealth of information dedicated to the lives and deaths of what were a group of ordinary, junior servicemen among 720,000 British servicemen to die. It certainly made the research a challenge. In each case, much of the difficulty was overcome by a careful blending of a sufficiency of available facts with the context in which they sat.
Each man’s story is told in a vivid and original way, ensuring that those destined not to come home will never be forgotten again. Apart from the touching record of each of the eleven names so carefully described, there are some extraordinary findings and many unexpected connections as well. For example, the German warships Göben and Breslau weave their way in and out of the narrative.
Powerstock has done its very best for those who went to war but were destined not to come home to their family and community. The parish agrees this was indeed a generation to be recognised and remembered. In response to Michael Morpurgo’s assertion ‘we did not and cannot know them’, the Parish of Powerstock was already well on its way to ensuring their war dead of the First World War would be known.