Sunday, 8 November 2009

THE KNOWN SOLDIER: IN MEMORIAM, LT BERTRAM VINCENT BROCKLEBANK

Hanging in the wardrobe at my parent's house is an aged dinner jacket. Smart, yet unostentatious, with grosgrain lapels and an elegant pleat to the trouser, it's the sort of dinner jacket worn by those in the habit of dressing for dinner. I imagine its owner enjoying a cigarette and whisky with water, perhaps a little hesitant in the company of women, and particularly shy of one, more dear to him than the rest, of whom he has hopes. I imagine him as diligent; modest about his successes and rueful of failings. I imagine him likeable; with a diffident charm. I imagine him with quiet ambition and irreproachable manners. I imagine him indulging his dreams for the family business, newly joined; his expectation of preferment and of Getting On and Going Far.

I may imagine all I like: the man for whom the dinner jacket was made, Lieutenant Bertie Brocklebank, a cousin of my grandfather, died on 31st July 1917, commanding No.4 Company, 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards. It was the first day of the campaign that came simply to be known as Passchendaele. He was twenty-five. Age shall not weary them.

The main offensive of the 3rd Battle of Ypres - Passchendaele - began at zero hour (3.50 am) on 31st July. By 9.30, Lt Brocklebank was dead.

A few years ago, my father went to the Guards museum to see if he could find further details of Bertie's death, and copied long-hand the operations report of the day. The 1st Guards Brigade (2nd Coldstream and 2nd Grenadier Guards), who were in support advanced at 8.50am to take their objectives but were held up by heavy machine gun fire, barrage and shelling and had to dig in 80 yards short of their objective. This is what the operations report has to say:

At 9.30 am the two parts of the Battalion began to consolidate and a contact aeroplane flew over the position. Flares were lit.
Unfortunately, at this moment, a German flew very low - about 100 feet - over the Battalion in a captured English aeroplane with a black cross painted very indistinctly on it. The position of consolidation was thus given away to the enemy and came under very accurate artillery fire.
There were many casualties. Lt.B.V.Brocklebank commanding No 4 Coy was killed and Lt. A.W.Kirk commanding No 3 Coy was wounded. 2nd Lt.L.C.Leggatt of No 3 Coy was killed leaving Lt.G.R.M.Caldwell as the sole surviving officer. By later on in the day, all the Sergeants had been killed or wounded.

Bertie was but one of 32,000 Allied casualties on 31st July, for an advance of around 2000 yards. I say a special prayer for him every Remembrance Sunday, not because he was especially heroic, or even a particularly close member of my family, but because every time I think of him, or see his dinner jacket, hanging there, I imagine what he, and every soldier killed in every conflict, might have become.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

24 comments:

@iamamro said...

Thank you for sharing that - beautifully put.

Anonymous said...

The lies, and truths, and pain?... oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

For those that never made it back

shayma said...

so beautifully written. how hard it must have been for his family. with all the war casualties we hear about everyday, it is important to remember the message in your post- what they could have become...

Miss Whistle said...

what a beautiful post.
xx Miss W

Mme X said...

Beautifully, thoughtfully done. Thank you.c

English Mum said...

Beautiful.

Titian red said...

Thank you. Why have the politicians and the pundits not learnt from our previous errors and arrogance ?

justmeagain said...

That's a lovely post. All those lives cut short....

Rose said...

Mrs Trefusis this is absolutely beautiful and very well written. I am hopeless about Remembrance Day and nearly cried about 50 times on Saturday when I saw the poppy sellers, when I saw little people wearing poppies and adjusting them. I have been known to cry at war memorials at stations. The thing is I'm not a big weeper but if the poppies and the loss don't make you sad I don't know what would. We will remember them!

Wildernesschic said...

I found this so hard to read .. I get so emotional, such a huge loss to a generation. Thank you for posting. Both my grandfathers made it home .. but apparently were never the same x

nappy valley girl said...

Beautiful post. Here in the US, the 11th is a public holiday, Veterans Day(although poppies don't appear to feature). Perhaps the UK should do similar, to make more of Remembrance Day.

Helena Halme said...

Beutiful, skilful and compelling. xx

~Tessa~Scoffs said...

Have been reading Siegfried Sassoon (though it's WW1.) Calls to mind your Bertie. Young Ones with their lives ahead of them not to be lived.

one of 365 said...

Mrs. T---
You actually teared me up with this. Yep, you did it. I knew you would at some point with your lovely words and deep sentiments. I would touch and finger that jacket every single time I saw it. I would smell it and close my eyes and try and imagine a 25 year old young man dapper and fine who has his blood running through my veins.
War hurts my heart so much. These men (and now women) who perish..so many of them don't want to be there. However, during his time, your Lt. would have been very proud to have served his country. He died a noble death indeed. It's such a shame, because so many men came back. It really was like winning the lottery. Either a bullet whizzed passed you and you survived and it struck another or it was your unlucky day. I can't watch the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan and the film Atonement gives me nightmares. These were people who wrote in journals, who kept pictures, who had dreams and hopes. These were people who were robbed of so many years. Were robbed of loved ones. I think your grandfather honored Lt. B. beautifully and now so have you. I'm glad that his dinner jacket remains in the closet almost welcoming him home and amongst everyone else's coats that they just took off. He'll never be forgotten and he'll always be surrounded by other people's warmth from their newly deposited coats. I loved this. Really. xoxoxox--One of 365

Top Bird @ Wee Birdy said...

Beautiful post - lest we forget. xx

Jaime said...

And what might we have become, if they weren't so brave. Thank you, Mrs. T, for remembering.

Msmarmitelover said...

Lovely writing, so appropriate. I find the first world war so heartbreaking especially in the works of Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks...

More than Just a Mother said...

So beautifully written.

Thank you for your compassion and empathy when you last visited my blog - it meant an awful lot to me xx

Hodmandod said...

Rather early adopter of the dinner jacket, so a smart and go ahead kind of person whose family would have habitually changed for dinner. I like him. I weep for all those wasted boys and all the women they left childless.

spudballoo said...

This is such a beautiful post, I've read it 3 or 4 times now. It encapsulates the 'whole' through the 'small', if that makes sense. Trying to comprehend the horror of it all is too much, we're desensitised to it. But the story of one, among the thousands, speaks to us all.

Lovely.

Anonymous said...

Bertram Brocklebank was my great uncle. He had a sister Edith, my grandmother, who never got over the death of her brother. She must have been about 8 when he died. My father was given his name.

My grandparents had his dress sword - studded with rubies I believe - but it was sold at auction when I was very small. My grandfather was terrified I would come across it and get hurt. It seems a terrible shame now.

nick said...

By amazing coincidence I am here with my younger sister & having googled "Betram Vincent Brocklebank" discovered this moving blog about our Great Uncle and the comments of my older sister left just three days ago.

It just goes to show how our war heroes & family heroes are never forgotten.

Nick said...

Just been doing a bit of family tree analysis. My grandma Edith Gertrude Brocklebank would have been 16 when her big brother Bertram was killed at age 25.

Something that hurt her for the rest of her life.

Gary said...

Lovely piece about a brave man. A picture, and small article, was printed in a local publication after his death. Visit http://i1203.photobucket.com/albums/bb381/salfordswarm/Brocklebank-Broughton.jpg to view.