The Pencil portrait of Private Christopher Coleman, from Cobh, County Cork, made by his wife.
The first week of September 1916 and the 16th Irish Division are engaged in the bloody advance across theSomme. At the village of Guillemont , men of the 7th Leinster Regiment manage to pass through the shattered village and secure and hold enemy trenches on the far side, but at terrible cost, losing some fifty percent of the soldiers engaged in the advance. But in the bizarre ethics of war, it was a victory
Following the ‘victorious’ advance, non-combatant labour battalions are sent into the killing fields to clear up the mess left by the fighting soldiers. They clear away abandoned trenching tools, wire cutters, discarded equipment and bits and pieces of dead soldiers. It is gruesome and arduous work.
Among their number is an Englishman, Private George Wiles of the Royal Engineers. As he scurries across the blood soaked ground he comes upon a great crater and at the edge of which, ‘as if resting after a long walk’ is the body of a well built soldier from one of the Irish regiments, the 7th Leinsters.
The Englishman is struck by his noble posture, for the dead soldier was a big man, well over six foot. Even by modern standards he would have been taller than average, by the standards of 1914-18 he was a giant.
The Englishman goes to the body. He has seen many such dead, he is accustomed to the dead, over familiar with the dead, but he is touched by the sight of this particular dead Irishman. He takes his knife and cuts open the breast pockets of the fallen soldier. From the bloody and muddy mess he takes a letter sent to the fallen man from Ireland, from his wife in Queenstown County Cork. He buries the fallen soldier. He takes from the ruins of a nearby church pieces of rubble from the destroyed structure. There are ancient crosses cut into the stone, five such crosses, and he marks the rough grave of the fallen Irishman with the broken stone of the church.
Later the same ground, cleared by the labour battalions, would again become a blood soaked battlefield, pounded by artillery and fought over by opposing armies. The rough, stone marked temporary grave of the Irishman would be lost. Forever lost and he thereafter would only be remembered by a name cut into the Somme memorial at Thiepval in Flanders .
In the lull of the battle, the Englishman, alone in his own trench, by candlelight, would write a powerful and moving letter to the grieving widow of the Irishman. He poured his heart into the letter using all the paper he had. Ten pages would he write, in fading pencil, telling her how he had found her dear husband and what he had done with his fallen body.
The dead Irishman was Christopher Coleman, Private Coleman of the 7th Leinster Regiment. Before the war he had had been the manager of the Commodore Hotel in Queenstown. Perhaps he had been there in May 1915, when the little squares and streets of Queenstown became an open morgue for the broken, innocent civilian bodies brought ashore after the sinking by torpedo of the passenger ship the S.S. Lusitania, and perhaps, for we will never know, it is was that which caused him to volunteer for the Leinsters and to leave his family to fight in Flanders.
He was such a handsome man was Private Coleman. His dear wife had, with considerable talent, drawn his pencil portrait from which, even after all these years, you can still sense his great size and presence.
The Englishman Wiles wrote, ‘..I came across this fellow in a shell hole (a very large one) & passed him as I passed others that lay about & something struck me to go back and see him, as he lay there as if resting from along walk. His statue marked me very much indeed he looked so smart & of a lovely build …’
‘I hope dear madam you will forgive me of taking liberties with your dear husband’s body. But you can rest assured (I will give you my word of honour.) that he is buried & I buried him the best I could. Not so well as some but better than thousands.’
It is by any measure a touching act of an ordinary English soldier for a fallen Irishman, and it must have brought enormous comfort to the grieving widow. Indeed until she received the letter Mrs Coleman fromCobh had no idea what had become of her husband. She had been advised he was missing after the September battles on the Somme
But then only silence.
Desperate for news she had travelled to Doverin the hope that he would be amongst the thousands of wounded, returning from the Sommeinto the network of military hospitals across the South of England. It was of no avail. With deepening fear she advertised for news of him in the Daily Herald. But their was no response. The English soldier’s letter confirmed her very worst fears. But it must also have been a source of great comfort and relief for she was so appreciative of the kind words of Private Wiles that she replied to him asking if he was in need of anything to ease the discomfort of his life in the trenches.
After the war, or perhaps before it ended, the Coleman widow and the Coleman children left the Commodore Hotel and leftIreland altogether, emigrating to America, no doubt from a ship leaving from the quayside opposite theirCobh home. The ten page pencil written letter is now held by the surviving Coleman family. No one has ever traced George Wiles.
The broken stone crosses of the rubble that marked Christopher Coleman’s temporary grave on the Somme came from the Shattered and destroyed Guillemont church, the church of St. Christopher.
*The full text of Private George Wiles letter can be read here:
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