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.