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:
Yours to hand the 15 inst & I have great pleasure in answering your
most kind & welcome letter. I daresay you was a little upset at first
after receiving a letter from my fried but I do hope & trust these lines
will find you in the best of health & spirits under circumstances & I
shall also be very pleased indeed if you will accept my sympathy in your
sad bereavement you said in your letter you would like to know details
re what I know of him well dear madam its a
very strange thing how I fell across him. My company was sent to
Guillemont to clear a way for traffic after the place was taken (this was) &
my duty was to go round & see all tools was collected & I can tell you
I was always on the look out for any one that may have been wounded or
killed & missed which I know often is the case as there is so much to
do & of course the lads cannot do everything. However 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 & see him, as he
lay there as if resting from a long walk. his statue marked me very
much indeed he looked sa smart & of a lovely build. then I pictured my-
self in his place. how if it was me & suppose he has just got missed
altogether how will his friends ever know. so you can guess how I got
my mind seemed only of him & his dear ones if any, how was I to know.
(at this time I forgot all about going to look for tools. & I thought
of his top pocket that all I could get tp. & with my knife I cut it
down & I saw a piece of paper I got it out & read it. & to my great
relief I saw an address taht as you have at the present. & then I opened
the other & the label of him was inside. this label I refer to is one
they all have to wear when wounded & as he was wounded in the hand. that
accounts for it)
& no doubt he was going to keep it. I hope dear madam you will forgive
me of taking liberties with your dear husbands 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. I was at this time up at the ruined church & luck came my way again
going about as I liked that gave me another chance of going to see if
any one had interfared with him. this was after I had buried him. &
about 600 yards from the church. I came back to my party after about
(say houer away. & found a lovely square stone from the ruins with 5
engraved on it. then I claimed it & took it for his grave after
writing his name & regiment in copying ink pencil as best I could. hoping &
trusting that if I was called away myself some-one would be sure & come
across him & probably would let your know. This was as near as I can
say to date Sept 15th & Fritz as we call the German was still sending
the shells pretty thick. & just after I was finished my duty to wards
this unknown soldier (your dear husband.) a shell came just after we had
finished dinner & I lost four of my comrades. I am very sorry also for
it’s a hard war & dreadful to see let alone hear about it, but I thank
God he has spared me to write these few lines to you to night. how I
wish I had sent at the first. you can I hope well understand me. I did
not like sending such bad news to you but it struck me all at once. my
friend sent me a paper & has it happened there appeared the photo of a
fellow belonging to my own country. he also was reported missing but I
have the clue of him as of your loving husband & I saw him I believe
the same day but not in such a good condition & his letters & his kit
baglay their. I picked them up & he belonged to my own
brothers regiment & the same company. I kept them until now & when I
saw his photo. I soon reckoned up what to do. Send his & yours as
well. I thought to my self if that lady’s in the same street she will
never know. So of course I asked my friend as to her opinion about the
matter & if she would send. This she has kindly done & we must Thank God.
as I said before & hope & trust he will keep me long enough to let you
know as much as I possibly can can as regards to your husband Dear
madam if there is any thing else you would like to ask me I shall only be
to pleased to hear from you at any-time –
You said as to me wanting anything at present I’m afraid I do not as
I’m in good circumstances this has happened since, (this affair) & I have
pretty well everthing of the best. also I have good friends at home &
relations that will provide for me if Im wanting. I may tell you I
have had to rough it for at least 9 months. & this part I’m at now is not
so far up to the line. my work at present is cook for the superior 6
officers at Headquarters & they are of the best as one could wish also
my mates & we are all happy to-gether & make the best of it. not
forgetting to thank you for your kind offer. which is very good of you.
if I have done you a favour, I have been rewarded for it. & thats my
blood. I cannot help it I must be doing good some-where my dear mother
was the same – when she was alive. & she was my only treasure. you
can guess the rest. (how I miss her.) dear madam I hope you will forgive
me writing so much as its your husband you want to hear about it looks
as if I am telling you more of my-self. I was quite forgetting hoping &
trusting to hear from you again I must now close
Pte G H Wiles
P.S. if you would like me to send the label I shall only be to pleased
to do so at my earliest convenience
Please excuse bad writing and mistakes
Good bye & may God bless you
wishing you a Happy & Prosperous New Year
& Best of Luck
yours G W
I have no other paper & envelopes
so please excuse
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