Saturday, 9 November 2013

We shall remember them

My father fought in the First World War, joining up, illicitly, at seventeen years of age.

He survived the 'Man's War' as he used to describe it but it left an indelible mark on him as it must have done with thousands more.

His first years of service were with the East Surrey Regiment ('Steady the Buffs') and he soon found himself in the trenches of Flanders.

I recall him telling me, with all due modesty, how he survived as a very young (Catholic) male thrust into living at close quarters with what seemed to be the male population of the East End of London.

A rough and ready group of men by all accounts.

Each night he shared a nissan hut with about 60 other servicemen and, before climbing into bed he would kneel and say his night prayers - to a chorus of obscene jeers and boos.

I do not think that I would have had that sort of courage at the age of seventeen, or, indeed, now.

In the trenches, he trained as a signaller and was, for a time, on the staff of the Signals Regiment. During this period he was despatched, along with an officer and two other privates, to camp out in no man's land for a three day period, sending back signals recording enemy movements.

The group was hit by a shell which mortally wounded the officer and killed the two privates. My father was badly wounded by shrapnel in the neck.
Nevertheless, he stayed in the shell hole nursing the officer until he died and sending back information on the enemy.

After the death of the officer he tried to find his way back to his lines carrying his rifle which was useless due to shell damage. He tucked the splintered stock beneath his arm and carried on until he came across a group of thirty or so Germans.

Pointing his defunct rifle at them he commanded them to "Hande hoch!" and marched them back to where his unit was based.

For this he was awarded the Military Medal.

He was then invalided out of France spending seven days being shunted around France in a cattle wagon until, at last, he was shipped back to 'Blighty' to recover.

His parish then was St Margaret's, Canning Town, and his Parish Priest, being of stout Irish stock, counselled him on transferring to the Irish Guards "as the fact is, my boy, they are not sending any more of their troops overseas and it is a Catholic regiment".

Sadly, the first part of the good priest's advice proved to be untrue and within 6 weeks of being classified as fit for service, my father was back in the trenches with the Guards.

In the final few weeks of the war he was commissioned into the Munster Fusiliers.

Two memories stand out from the war tales that he told me.

The first was the way in which the Irish Guards Catholic chaplains went over the top with the rest of the men when the attack whistle blew.
With stoles flapping around their necks, the chaplains ran into fields of deadly fire, responding to cries of "absolution Father" by bestowing the Sacrament of Penance on the troops as they ran.

My second memory is of an occasion when I was showing my Father a book on the Great War.
In particular, I showed him a picture of a battlefield covered by fallen bodies.

"Was it really as bad as that?" I asked.

"No" he replied. "It was far worse, the bodies in no man's land would be two or three deep"

Last week I had a business meeting with an eminent academic.

I wore a red poppy in my buttonhole.

I was shocked and then intensely angry that he sported a white poppy in his.

We owe it to those who died and suffered in both World Wars, to remember their bravery and sacrifice; not to glorify war but to recall the sacrifices that were made.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
                                                       We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
                                                      Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae

Richard Collins Born 29th August 1897 - Died 24th January 1979 RIP

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them, 
may they rest in peace. Amen


  1. Thank you for this, Richard, and God bless. I, too, remember.

  2. I live in the United States. So many of the young men in my wife's English family were lost during WWI - we still have the sad letters sent overseas to inform her great-grandparents of the fate of their cousins in the UK. We still commemorate their sacrifices every year on Remembrance Sunday - young men lost in battle nearly a century ago, as well as those from both sides of the family who lost their lives in the 1940s. Thank you so much for this posting, Mr. Collins - for this glimpse into another world.

    I cannot begin to imagine what anyone would have against the recognition of such a sacrifice. I am well aware of the red poppy. What is the significance of a "white poppy"? And why am I not surprised that a modern "academic" would be the one wearing it?

  3. That was beautiful. My father fought in World War II and this is a tribute to him...


    In the Fall
    Of forty-four
    Our country battled
    In a war.

    A young boy went –
    The proud the few
    To the isle
    Of Peleliu.

    On his right
    His buddies killed
    On his left
    More blood was spilled.

    A young boy went –
    The proud the few
    To the isle
    Of Peleliu.

    His mind he steadied
    Not to cry
    Then metal shrapnel
    Sliced his eye.

    A young boy went –
    The proud the few
    To the isle
    Of Peleliu.

    Writhing pain
    His eye red-hot
    A smiling medic
    Then he was shot.

    A young boy went –
    The proud the few
    To the isle
    Of Peleliu.

    Under his back
    Only the earth
    In front to his sides
    Souls of great worth.

    A young boy went –
    The proud the few
    To the isle
    Of Peleliu.

    The boy was wounded
    Left eye blind
    Back to the states
    Pray, paint and remind…

    Just yesterday killed,
    The proud the few -
    May all souls rest

  4. Remembering my own Father today...who was at the fall of Singapore.Thanks for this post.

  5. Thank you for that Richard.
    My Grandfather was also a young Catholic Signaller in the First World War. He wrote a diary of his experiences which I have made available to read on my web site

  6. Most probably some of those fellow-soldiers of your Dad secretly admired him for his courage to kneel and pray before sleeping. Your Dad "planted some very good seeds" there that only God knows about. He was very brave set that example. God bless ALL our men in service, especially the deceased ones. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I love you, Save souls"!! amen.

  7. May he rest in peace. Today in the so-called armies that succeeded those of the First World War one might expect to be penalised for demonstrating one's Faih, as in praying. We are in a time of unacknowledged persecution.

  8. Thank you for this. In Australia in WW1 we had the only volunteer army of all combatant countries. 400,000 served and 60000 lie in soil and remembered at home by a faded photograph. My great uncle was a officer in a sussex regiment and lost his leg at the Somme,whilst my maternal grandfather was a captain in the RN and possibly served at Jutland -he died in German occupied Jersey in 1945.
    All of my wife's great uncles on both sides were ANZACS thus they first saw fight at Gallipoli,and one disappeared at the Battle of Moquet Farm ,and our Government is now beginning a search for MIAs from that battle
    We can never know peace ,until we know the Prince of Peace
    Pray God will give us all the courage to live and show our faith ,as your father did Richard.
    Dominus Vobiscum

  9. Thank you all for your comments and for your accounts of loved ones who fought and died in the wars.
    Bob, I shall certainly read about your grandfather, and John Scott, the white poppy has been introduced ostensibly as a symbol of peace. A slap in the face for the red poppy because that, too, symbolises a desire for peace. The white poppy is used as a stalking horse for the pacifists. Some, such as those who served as medics or ambulance drivers, I have a deep respect for. Others, who claimed conscience as an excuse for not serving, I regard in a less than favourable light.
    And thank you all for your kind comments about my Pa; I had not intended to bask in his reflective glow, merely illustrate how a good Catholic should stand up for the Faith.

  10. WWI , Both grandfathers, one uncle, 2 greataunts (of five sisters) spinsters all their lives whose young men became flanders mud, along with other relatives, odd shellshocked uncles, WWI continues to reverberate to this day in my family and most I suspect, perhaps to merge into ... what?

    I am sinfully judging your academic. But the phenomenon shouldn't be given a pass - what real connection is there to WWI (andII) brave conchie stretcher bearers coming under fire? Orwell
    "In 'seventeen to snub the nosing bitch
    Who slipped you a white feather needed cheek, "