“I don’t believe in an afterlife but I’m taking a clean change of underwear just in case.”
Woody Allen

At 9am on September 11th 2001 my cousin Keith and I were sitting in his shop in the East End of London watching the attack on the World Trade Centre on a portable TV. Together we saw the smoke pouring from the North Tower, listened to the hesitant commentary as the reporter tried to explain something that he himself didn’t understand. And then there was the dot in the sky that disappeared into the second tower in a silent puff of smoke, the unsteady images from hand-held cameras, people running from the tsunami of dust and paper that swept down the streets as the towers sank to their knees in defeat. Even now, thirteen years later, after the whole tragedy has been dissected, re-enacted on film, analysed and grieved over, even now that I have seen for myself the bleak cavity of Ground Zero, the overwhelming shock remains at this pure manifestation of evil which somehow became personified in the wall-eyed expression of Muhammed Atta. This meticulously planned and religiously inspired attack provoked an invasion of Iraq, fortified the radical Christian Right and brought forth, 6 years after the event, a trio of books from Christopher Hitchens, Michel Onfray and Richard Dawkins that made me think.

We were not a family of church-goers; religion, along with politics, sex and anything that required exposure of feelings, was never discussed. In fact, I don’t remember a single thing my father ever said to me; no repeated piece of advice that might have shaped a boy’s future. I have the impression his life stopped sometime before I was born, perhaps when he laid down his cherrywood pipe and started smoking cigarettes. I realize now that I was a smoker at the age of four, inhaling the smoke from the 60 un-tipped cigarettes he smoked each day. Photographs of him sitting alert and arms akimbo as a member of Alleyns Soccer Eleven of 1921 or smiling with his Pioneer Corps unit in Egypt in 1944 suggest that I had two fathers. The man I knew seemed to be always on a ladder painting drain pipes or sitting cross-legged on a lawn removing weeds with a chisel. He may be in his Parker Knoll watching Morecombe and Wise on our Radio Rentals TV with its detachable legs or reading the Daily Express over a cooked breakfast. Perhaps he’s shoveling salt into a water-softener or in his attic darkroom, developing undistinguished black and white prints. Even if he stood before you, dragging deeply on a Capstan Full Strength, he was somewhere else, probably in the smoky, hop-scented saloon bar of the Heaton Arms; let’s not mistake him for a deep thinker.

Mum had more to say. She’d sit and talk over cups of PG Tips with Mrs Smith who came once a week to polish the silver tea service on the sideboard and the brass frogs and bells and Spanish grandees that sat in niches in the brickwork around the fireplaces. While I collected newts from the village pond, she’d chatter away with her friend Sheck who managed an antique shop in Chislehurst. She talked to me too, often about a past that sounded more fun than the present. Along with an introduction to guilt she also offered endless warnings, “You can stoop low and pick up nothing” (a veiled reference to my father), “Chew it properly” and “Look both ways” still reverberate down the dark tunnels of my un-sleep.

“Mundania is a very drear place where the people do not believe in magic.”
Review of “The Man from Mundania” by Piers Anthony

Our house in Mundania Road, Honor Oak, was in a quiet grid of streets named after places in the Crimea, part of a 1930s development of gravel-walled semis. Beyond us was a series of gloomy, late Victorian houses and then, on the corner of Forest Hill, a dilapidated block of white, art-deco apartments opposite a church. I can still recall the smell of sun-warmed creosote on fence palings, of dock and nettle and privet; the oily fumes of combusted fuel from London Routemasters; the savoury steam from Sunday roasts and poached haddock; the aroma of newsprint and confectionery, of polished linoleum and most of all, of damp, that awful damp that pervades the inseparable boroughs of Camberwell and Peckham, Lewisham and New Cross, Deptford and Penge. I also remember the first thrills of escape, of slipping through a gap in the fence at the bottom of the garden to roam the wide open spaces of the playing fields that backed on to our row of houses, the lone visits to my Uncle and Aunt’s house around the corner in Therapia Road and scaling the wall of the underground reservoir in Homesdale Road to search for cartridge cases.(1)

On weekdays my father would drive his old cream and blue Sunbeam down to 190 Rye Lane where he would slowly destroy the timber merchant business his father had begun and built up. My grandfather had taken advantage of the canal built in the 1820s for the transport of softwoods from Surrey Commercial Docks to New Cross to set up a saw-mill on its banks and a retail outlet in Peckham. He called it “W Lynn and Sons” for he had expected both his sons to continue the business but my father’s younger brother, Ted was rounded up by the Japanese when they took Singapore in February of 1942, and after a spell in Changi, died in January of 1943 helping build the infamous Burma Railway. (2) Would things have turned out differently if he had been there? Who knows? There were further complications when grandma died (3) and was replaced by her husband’s house-keeper, Constance, a humourless, dessicated prune of a woman with illusions of Gran’dad.

It is easy to see now the strategic options that would have been open at the time to someone interested in developing or even merely saving the business. But my father was not interested. The body language, the resigned attitude, the constant resort to the temporarily uplifting saloon bar of the pub across the Rye told it all. Often, on a Saturday, my mother would help with the bookkeeping and I would be taken along to play on the piles of timber or in the heaps of sawdust in the old stables that was sold as bedding and toilets for rabbits. I could also escape into Rye Lane, in the 1950s still a bustling shopping centre with its fruit and vegetable stalls in Choumert Road, Austins Antiques warehouse, the Tower cinema, the stall under the railway arches selling cigarette cards and the confusing labyrinth of Jones & Higgins, at one time the largest department store in South London. How my father coped with the final collapse I cannot imagine. “He aimed low and missed,” explained my mother some years later.

In the early 50s we left Forest Hill and moved a dozen or so miles south to Petts Wood, a garden estate of Tudorbethan style houses surrounded by woods of oak and silver birch. To create a village atmosphere the developer had grouped the shops in a square surrounding a mock Tudor pub called the Daylight Inn named in commemoration of William Willet, the inventor of daylight saving, who had lived most of his life in nearby Chislehurst. The owner of the Dunstonian Garage, a dealer in Hillman and Humber cars, had even been persuaded to cover his petrol pumps with a canopy and to incorporate oak beams into the façade of his workshop and office. Slightly out of keeping was the local church, St Francis, set in woodland and built of wood and Sussex brick, its long straight hammerbeam roof recalling a medieval tithe barn. Our own house at 17 The Chenies (4) was all white with leaded-light windows and an elaborate porch and oak front door with gothic panels. There was a crop of silver birches in the front garden and a pond with water lilies and frogs in the back. Although there was a nice lounge with inglenook fireplace and a view of the garden with its screen of pine trees at the far end we lived grouped around the television in the dining room or in the kitchen.

In this paradise of “rus in urbe” I watched relations between my parents deteriorate. Apart from my father’s lack-lustre performance in the work-place and his heavy drinking my mother confided to me that he also had a “weakness for women” and enrolled me as her private investigator. Children, in both fact and fiction, have always been used for nefarious ends by their elders. The experience of young Leo Colston in L P Hartley’s novel “The Go-between” left him psychologically impaired for life. How will those 8 and 10 year old Junior Streetwatchers (embryo Stasi agents?) employed by Ealing Council (5) to identify and report on enviro-crime issues (graffiti and fly-tipping) fare as adults? My duties were to search the ashtray of dad’s car for lipstick stained cigarette ends when he came home late and to make sure he was never left alone with unattached or unaccompanied women. On at least one occasion I was sent out to call my mother from a public ‘phone box, a supposedly mysterious admirer designed to provoke my father’s jealousy. I doubt whether the plan worked. When on occasion I became the subject of discussion between my parents I was never referred to by name but as “that boy” (even if I was within earshot) as in “That boy needs a new pair of shoes” or “Don’t you dare hit that boy, Arthur”. Like all children I didn’t like to hear my parents arguing and I would creep from bed to listen to what my mother would later, in comforting me, describe as “just a discussion”. Was my father joking when he announced, in response to my mother’s threat that she would dance on his grave when he was dead, that he would be buried at sea?

My sister, ten years older than me, was already planning her escape into matrimony; my escape for the moment was into the branches of the pine trees at the end of the garden, among the books that lined the shelves over my bed or into the Embassy, Petts Wood’s art deco cinema on the other side of the railway line that divided the town both territorially and socially. On those evenings the family went to the cinema we were greeted in the foyer by the manager, Mr Helstine, resplendent in evening suit. There was chop, chips and peas in the first floor café lounge with its fashionable tubular chairs before we settled into the rose and gold auditorium for a full evening of cinema – Movietone News, cartoon and a double bill of A and B films, spoilt only by my mother fidgeting and grumbling about the “stupid slobbering” when the actors happened to embrace. Better still when I could travel alone to the kids only sessions on a Saturday morning and follow the adventures of Johnny Weismuller, Buster Crabbe and Hopalong Cassidy. Cinema was not the only casualty when the Embassy closed its doors in 1973; the building’s new tenant, Safeway’s, spelt death for many of the local butchers, fishmongers and fruit and vegetable shops. A regrettable loss was David Grieg, a meat and dairy shop in Station Square where assistants in long aprons would cut your order for butter from a pale yellow mountain with cheese-wire and then slap it around between wooden paddles before packaging it in grease-proof paper.

My sister’s marriage to her Dutch boyfriend, in St Francis church (with reception at the Daylight Inn) did not result in her immediate liberation. For the first year or so of their marriage she and her husband lived with us in The Chenies. This is not an easy situation in the best of circumstances and it must have been a happy day for her when she and her husband moved into their own home some five miles distant on the other side of Orpington. After my sister left, my mother moved into her own bedroom (newly and un-tastefully decorated in pale grey Formica) while my father slept on in his cold room with its heavy mahogany veneered furniture and smell of stale cigarettes until he decided to move full-time into the Heaton Arms. ‘He was called to the bar,’ explained my mother.

“I am constantly going into churches, but for architectural reasons; and, more widely, to get a sense of what Englishness once was.”
Julian Barnes
“Nothing to be Frightened of”

If religion was never discussed and we were not church-goers there was also no sign that either of my parents were private believers. Grace was not said at meals; there were no framed prints of Saints on the walls as there were at my mother’s sister’s house. God’s name was only called upon in contexts of blasphemy. In spite of all this I still have a fading card that says on April 5 1942 at St Augustine’s Church in Honor Oak Park I was made a Member of Christ, A Child of God and An Inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven but it was not until I was packed off to boarding school for nearly eight years that I was fully exposed to religion or, more accurately, to the Boys Own Anglican version of Christianity. At Dulwich College Prep there were prayers and hymns morning and evening and, on Sundays we were shepherded in a crocodile up College Road, past the toll-gate and into St Stephens for morning service. (6) At Cranleigh School there was chapel each morning and every evening we would kneel on the bare boards of the dormitories for prayers before bedtime. On Sundays there was Evensong as well as morning chapel when some visiting cleric would deliver a sermon to a largely uninterested congregation. I enjoyed chapel, listening to future organ scholars playing “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring”, sun illuminating stained glass, gripping the wings of a brass eagle as I read the lesson from a massive Bible and the carols at Christmas. I was a good divinity student and passed it at GCE. I still take great pleasure in the language of the King James’ Bible, in Donne’s sermons and the poems of George Herbert. At fifteen I was confirmed by the Bishop of Guildford, kneeling on the black and white marble tiles hoping for, but not expecting, some magical revelation as I received the sacraments.

But I never believed. My lack of belief was instinctive not something I thought about or intellectualized over; certainly I never had Christopher Hitchens’ self belief or intelligence as a schoolboy to voice my rejection of religion in general. I knew then that Genesis was a fairy tale and still find it amazing that there are educated people who believe the earth is 10,000 years old. I could never accept Jesus’ divinity or any New Testament tales of the super-natural; after all, what was the so-called miracle of the five loaves and two fishes other than an equitable redistribution of pooled assets, the burning bush other than a natural phenomenon. Faith was required and I had none. Why would anyone place faith in something that for two thousand years had never provided a single instance of justification? Judging from history those who had faith were seldom rewarded in this life and as far as I was concerned there was no other. And isn’t it strange how contemporary Greek Othodox ritual seems as alien to an Anglican as Sumerian Sun worship, that Sunnis and Shiites slaughter each other over interpretation of some arcane procedures of the same religion and that educated men like Latimer and Ridley were toasted for their intransigence by the separate branch of a common Christian faith. And wouldn’t the faithful Christian be a loyal Muslim if he had been born in Islamabad rather than Ipswich? And so, looking back, I can see Bible study was just another part of the broader study of history in general and history, or a large part of it, the struggles of one religious sect against another. Hitchens and Dawkins and Onfray were only making me feel more comfortable with something I had always felt. The love of churches and cathedrals, of Christian ritual at the time of birth and marriage and death remain as mere memories of England and Englishness and not objects of guilt over lack of faith.

I wonder what my father thought of in those post-stroke years, in bed alone or silent in his slippers in front of the television as my mother discussed him within earshot with visitors. Did religion or the possibility of afterlife ever cross his mind? We’ll never know.
He finally gave up at 75. Weakened and emasculated by a stroke, deprived of tobacco, strong drink and the ear of a friendly barmaid, he sat quietly watching the sport, mother clicking her dentures while he wobbled a lower front tooth until he could pluck it from his gum and start on the next. He was buried in a postcard country churchyard, four men in black carrying him through the yew trees to be lowered into the earth. Somehow this was a betrayal. He wasn’t meant to be there alone in a churchyard next to a church he had never visited in a village he had never known. Better his ashes in an urn, flanked by bottles of Bells and Teachers, on a shelf behind the saloon bar of the Heaton Arms. At least, reduced to dust, he could have been himself. Mother chose not to attend the funeral although she removed Dad’s signet ring and wore it to her own. In a final act of misandry when her time came she elected to be consigned to the flames and her ashes scattered in a Garden of Peace rather than bear the eternal proximity of her husband. Presumably, among her powdered remains are flecks of my father’s gold signet ring.

Mother had longer to reflect on past life and after-life in her retirement home bed-sit in a large Victorian house on the outskirts of Maidstone smelling faintly of stale pee and cabbage. Too proud to mix with the other inmates, she must have watched those last seasons come and go alone, writing out shopping lists – Jay cloths, shortbread biscuits, note paper – to hand my sister when she came to visit, cutting unwanted faces from photographs of the past, re-writing history in her head. On my own infrequent visits we had nothing much to say to each other. On one occasion, jet-lagged from a 24 hour flight and overcome by the heat in the tiny room, I passed out on the bed and was unconscious for two and a half hours out of the three I had allowed for the visit. And so, as the years ticked by it sometimes seemed as if she would go on forever. Even though choked with the horrible finality of it all when she was finally swallowed in the inferno, I experienced a mild feeling of release afterwards as I joined the mourners for tea in my sister’s garden and when Keith and I later sped off towards London I felt quite happy it was all over.

(1) The biggest underground reservoir in London. Used as a rifle range during WW2; now a golf course
(2) Signalman 2357597 Thomas Edward Lynn, Royal Corps of Signals. Born March 1907; died January 2nd 1943. He is buried in Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, located 129 kms WNW of Bangkok and close to the famous Bridge 277 over the Khwae Yai River, which was completed one month after Signalman Lynn’s death.
(3) Grandma Alice died at the age of 62 in 1934. She was 6 years older than her husband.
(4) The Chenies, a cul de sac of 29 houses, was designated a Conservation Area of architectural and historic importance in 1982
(5) Article in the Weekly Telegraph 10th September 2008
(6) Both St Stephens and Dulwich College were the subjects of paintings by Camille Pisarro who had fled France in 1870 on the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war to live with his half-sister in Palace Road, Upper Norwood.


2088 is the Postcode of the Sydney suburb of Mosman

By the shores of Sydney Harbour
By the deep-sea-shining-water
Lies the land of Too-O-AteAte
Once the home to pine and gum,
Now to ersatz Tuscan town-house
And the box of glass and steel.
Gone the lean and dreaming Dharug
Dharawal and Kuringgai,
With their legends and traditions
Gone to lodges in the sky.
Now the Elders of the Council
Send their brownshirt Rangers ranging,
Seeking, seeking, tracking, stalking
Smokers, parkers, pedophiles,
In the land where Burger’s King.
Once the sound of wood birds calling
Now the urban hum of engines,
Now the growl of four wheel drives.
See them at the Crystal Car Wash
Where the bridge points east and west.
There, the wives with yellow tresses,
Warpaint damp on botoxed lips
i-phones clamped to dainty ears,
Moving Spandex covered hips
Seeking weight loss, seeking thinness
To celebrate the Christmas break.
Sun sets on federation semis,
Husbands home from desk and mall,
Hunter Valley Chardo’s tippled
As ABC presents the News.
In the hushed retirement villages
Lonely and abandoned Elders
Microwave remaindered off-cuts,
As they clutch TV remotes.
Should you ask me, whence the car-wash?
Whence the leg wax and the lattes,
Whence the soy milk double de-cafs,
Whence the muffins, gluten free.
I should shake my head in sorrow
At the endless meals of Thai,
At the worship of all things Tuscan
At the long departed Kuringgai.



On the idle hill of summer,
Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams.

Far and near and low and louder
On the roads of earth go by,
Dear to friends and food for powder,
Soldiers marching, all to die.

A E Houseman

It’s a sad fact that some questions that should have been asked only take form after the responses are no longer available. Answers to questions I would like to pose now were mine for the asking a long time ago, but lack of curiosity at the moment leads to the lonely vigil of later research. I suppose it should not be surprising that the facts provided by research often fly in the face of the memorized version handed down; after all, one has to allow for the passage of time since the event was witnessed or heard as well as for the long and general tradition of embellishing legend. It was entirely understandable therefore that I was unable to substantiate much of our family’s history passed down by way of mouth. I have been unable to locate among my ancestors a sea captain, although I did find that Able Seaman Stephen Mayne(1) was aboard the Neptune, anchored off Beachy Head when the census for 1861 was taken. I could find no evidence to support my mother’s claims that my maternal grandfather was part-owner of a restaurant in the City of London or that we were somehow associated with the Delaware-Morgans, purported grandees of Belgravia. However, I did substantiate one story my mother used to tell and that concerned the death of her uncle Harry.

Harry, she would tell me, died at the battle of Polygon Wood and this fact alone secured my interest as, from an early age, the Great War had held me spellbound. The roots of this interest lay on the shelves of my bedroom and in a black trunk that sat underneath the window. Among other treasures, the trunk contained a History of the Great War collected by my father in monthly installments in the 1930s and therefore available to be inspected piecemeal each night by torchlight under the blankets. On the shelves, among my sister’s hand-me-downs and my own books were some my father had when he was young and among those a novel of the Great War called “At His Country’s Call” by Albert Lee. Having long ago lost the original, I recently purchased a copy and was able to relive the adventures of Maurice Millard on the Western Front. My new copy is inscribed to Sidney Barron for good behaviour in Church.

Later there were to be more serious books about the Great War – “Goodbye to all That”, “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer”, “All Quiet on the Western Front” and more recently Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ “Birdsong”. My knowledge of the Great War is therefore remembered more through these novels as well as through the poetry of Wilfred Owens and Siegfried Sassoon than through familiarity with its actual history. Those who watched Captain Blackadder will forever remember the war effort as an attempt to inch Army Chief Douglas Haigh’s cocktail cabinet a little nearer to Berlin. And who can forget the casualty statistics, posted up cheerfully as cricket scores, in Joan Littlewood’s 1963 stage musical “Oh, What a Lovely War”?

It was not until the early 1970s, when I was living in Paris, that I was able to make closer contact with the realities of the Great War. By chance one of my first audit clients was situated close to Armentieres (motto: “Pauvre mais fiere”(2)) a town everyone still remembers through the song, “Madameoiselle from Armentieres”. Originally “Madameoiselle from Bar le Duc”, a French army song of the 1830s resurrected during the war of 1870, it recounted the indiscretions of an innkeeper’s daughter with two German soldiers. It was adapted by British and Canadian soldiers in the early months of the Great War and was still popular in 1940 when Flanagan and Allen used the song as the title of their West End show.

My attention to the ancient killing fields was also drawn by Larry and Bonnie Orsini who had pitched their weekend caravan in a field near Vic sur Aisne. One weekend Larry and I combed through the caves at nearby Confrecourt, where stone quarries had been extended in the Great War to provide subterranean barracks for the French army.

In the early 1970s, stalls at the flea markets at Clignancourt and Bercy were still filled with fading sepia photographs of Poilus and Zouaves, rusting bayonets and lighters and ashtrays constructed from shell casings. Feeling about the war still remained strong, so much so that Stanley Kramer’s 1957 anti-war film “Paths of Glory” depicting the mutinies in the French army after the failed 1917 offensive under General Nivelle, was banned from French cinemas until 1975.

Finally, in 1972, I took a few days leave and went to find Uncle Harry. You don’t have to drive far out of Paris to encounter the battlefields of the Great War. In September of 1914 the Germans had pushed as far as the village of Claye Souilly, a mere taxi ride from Paris and it was in fact 600 taxi cabs, each carrying 5 soldier passengers and their weapons, that transported the Army of Paris to halt the German advance at the First Battle of the Marne. In June of 1918 the Germans were back, this time only 56 miles from Paris. But these actions were in the West and I was travelling North, through Senlis and Compiegne, through St Quentin and Cambrai, headed for Ypres.

My destination was the cemetery at Polygon Wood but I was in no hurry and meandered through Flanders, stopping for bed and breakfast, lingering over the Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel with its beds of yellow St John’s Wort and magnificent statue of a caribou both in remembrance of the sacrifice made by the Newfoundland Regiment on July 1st 1916(3). The whole of Flanders has a seductive melancholy to it, from the raw brick hamlets to the rows of sodden beet, from the multitude of grim memorials to the songs of Jacques Brel. In the late afternoon of my second day, I arrived at Polygon Wood cemetery. Situated 8 kilometers east of Ypres, it was a beautifully manicured walled garden of green and white. I felt I was going into church as I lifted the latch on the gate and moved amongst the hundred or so graves. Harry was nowhere to be found. His name was not in the register kept in the gate so I walked to the nearby Buttes New British cemetery but Harry’s was not among the 2,109 graves. But on the way to Ypres, where I had decided to spend the night, I stopped to inspect the Menin Gate and there, inscribed on the walls among the 54,896 names of Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies had never been found, was Sergeant Harold Mayne of the 7th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment.

I went back to the Menin Gate, this time in the evening to hear the Last Post played, as it still is, every night. The next day after a visit to the museum I returned home. It was not until thirty years later that I realized I still had not found the right Harry Mayne.

The Harry Mayne my mother talked about was 27 when he took the King’s shilling from the Recruiting Sergeant of the 9th County of London Regiment, Queen Victoria’s Rifles(4), at 56 Davies Street, Mayfair(5). The 1st Battalion was at full complement within 48 hours of war being declared on 4 August 1914 and the 2nd Battalion, to which Harry was assigned, only days later. For the first two weeks the 1,065 men of the 2nd Battalion assembled and were kitted out at Davies Street and then divided, according to social rules of the time, into 3 groups: Public School men, civilians with no knowledge of soldiering and men who had previously served with the 1st Battalion. Harry, a warehouseman, would have belonged to the second group. In the next weeks there was drilling in Richmond and other suburban London parks and, when leave was available, Harry would have been able to see his family at 10 May Place, Peckham(6). On 23rd November the 2/9th set out for St John’s Hill Camp near Crowborough where it underwent strenuous training until the spring of 1915. According to regimental records, the people of Crowborough “set apart recreation rooms for them, allowed them the use of their bathrooms and in a hundred and one ways showed their gratitude to the boys who had come forth to fight in defence of King and country.”(7) Ninety years later, the Station Commander of RAF Wittering would ban Air Force personnel from wearing their uniforms in the town of Peterborough following abuse by sections of the community, while students at University College, London would refuse the military permission to set up recruitment stalls on the College campus.

Among constant but unfulfilled hopes of active service, from the spring of 1915 the 2/9th QVRs marched from Ipswich to Bromeswell Heath, near Woodbridge, back to Ipswich where they stayed in billets until Easter of 1916 and then back again to live under canvas at Bromeswell Heath. Home guard duties were not what the men had hoped for and their marching song, to the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers” is full of bitter disappointment.

Onward, Queen Victorias
Guarding the railway line
Is this foreign service?
Ain’t it jolly fine?
No we’re not downhearted
Won’t the Huns be sick?
When they meet us over there,
All looking span and spick,
Hope on, Queen Victorias,
Don’t forget the fray,
We shall do our duty
For a bob a day.    

Perhaps they were singing this as they later marched to the coast at Alderton on the Suffolk coast, placing outposts in the same Martello towers that were built during the Napoleonic Wars to repel an invasion by Britain’s current allies. One company, according to the CSM, “put barbed wire between the breakwaters, but was careful not to interfere with the bathing parades.” A company commander gave orders to dig trenches in the sea wall, but next day the local authorities objected and the holes had to be filled in again. In July the brigade was moved to hutments at Longbridge Deverill on Salisbury Plain where it completed its musketry course and waited… and waited. Finally, on Saturday 3rd February 1917 Harry and his mates embarked on the SS La Margarita, and with “smooth sea and a lovely moonlight night” crossed the Channel under an escort of two destroyers disembarking at Le Havre in the early hours of Sunday morning. It was not a warm welcome with 25 degrees of frost freezing the bolts in the soldiers’ rifles. The men were also dismayed to witness the long lines of wounded being transferred from Red Cross train to hospital ship as they assembled on the dockside and set off, in marching order, for the rest camp some five miles distant. On 7th February the battalion was moved in a north-easterly direction by rail through Abbeville to Auxi Le Chateau and then marched 17 miles due west to Sus St Leger where they were billeted in barns to their first sound of gunfire. There was now a week of comparative ease, the men sleeping on straw and enjoying warm meals of mutton stew and boiled chestnuts and the occasional comforting Woodbine before, on February 13th, they were bussed to within 4 or 5 miles of the trenches in front of Berles-au-Bois and Bienvillers, which they were to occupy with two battalions of the Staffords. It was bitterly cold with 3 inches of snow on the ground and the men were made to rub whale oil into their feet before marching the last few miles to the trenches. After six relatively quiet days in the line the battalion marched to Grenas. The snow had melted and the rain set in so the men slogged along in a sea of mud. Apart from a rest from the trenches, Grenas also provided the men with their first bath since arriving in France. Over the next weeks Harry and his mates marched to Gaudiempre to Baillement to Wailly until on March 1st they occupied trenches opposite Blairville, relieving the 1/5 West Riding Regiment and suffered their first casualties.

On March 16th the German army began a strategic withdrawal and the QVRs occupied the enemy line enjoying the superior comforts of the enemy’s trenches, which were 15 feet deep, paved and drained. At the end of March they were at Agny near Arras and in April at Miraumont and then at Achiet le Petit under canvas, continually moving up and down the line, working on roads, training, digging trenches.

In May the battalion was in the front line at Bullecourt suffering 123 casualties from shelling and winning four Military Medals before being relieved by the 2/10th London. Harry and his mates retired to Ecoust St Mein where they were accommodated in an extensive network of tunnels and caves beneath the church, a welcome legacy arising from the persecution of the Huguenots in the eighteenth century during the reign of Louis XV. In June they were in Mory, where a large draft awaited to replenish those battalions decimated by casualties.

On July 22nd the 2/9th finally had their own show near Havrincourt Wood, south west of Cambrai, with orders to raid an enemy position at Mow Cop “creeping forward as a formation until discovered, then rushing with bayonet to overpower any resistance.” Nine enemy were killed, ten wounded and two prisoners were taken; Rifleman Lewthwaite of the 2/9th was shot through the lungs and died a few hours after he was carried back to the trenches. Five others were wounded, one severely. A letter from the Brigade Major congratulated the QVR’s Colonel and the men on the success of the raid.

On July 27th the battalion was transported by light rail to Dainville near Arras, where it underwent extensive training until August 24th when it entrained for the Salient, arriving at Brake Camp (or “Dirty Bucket Camp” as it was known) just outside Ypres. Later they moved into dug-outs(8) on the Yser-Ypres canal bank losing 6 killed and 8 wounded on September 5th to a single shell burst. The QVRs had now been drawn into the Third Battle of Ypres, which had begun on July 31st with the Battles of Pilckem and Langemarck; it would end on November 6th with the capture of the village of Passchendaele and cost the lives of over 300,000 Commonwealth soldiers.

On September 8th, two companies were ordered to capture and hold Jury Farm and establish the line along the Winnipeg-Cemetery-Springfield Road. Things went badly from the outset when12 men of C Company were gassed by a misdirected shell from their own artillery and their commander, Lieutenant Wightwick, and his sergeant were killed in the first minutes of the attack. B Company now came under fire from the mebus (or pill-box) that C Company failed to take and so was forced to retire. The official report contained the usual ghastly balance sheet: 2 officers and 14 other ranks killed (9 by our own gas), 22 wounded. 13 prisoners were taken and 2 enemy killed. Lieutenants McAdam and Spenser-Pryse were both awarded the Military Cross.

Harry’s death warrant came in the form of Order No1 of 24th September signed by the Battalion Adjutant, Captain Harrington, instructing the 2/9th to capture and hold a section of the enemy line located about two and half miles north of Polygon Wood, from which the battle was to take its name. A brigade of the 59th Division would attack on the QVR’s right; the left was to be protected by a demonstration with dummy figures to draw the enemy’s fire. Each man was to carry 48 hours rations (1lb of biscuit, a tin of bully, a bottle of water and a bottle of tea). Harry was almost certainly armed with a Lee Enfield .303 rifle and18inch bayonet. He would be carrying a couple of Mills bombs and gas mask in his haversack and a bandolier with 170 rounds of ammunition over his shoulder. Around each man’s neck would be 2 metal identity discs, one green the other red, both stamped with the bearer’ name, regimental number, unit and religion. A grim addendum to Order No 1, posted on 25th September and marked “Warning” announced that the word “Retire” was not to be used on any account and that “anyone using this word will be treated as an enemy and shot.”

At 10pm on the 25th the battalion, consisting of approximately 400 men and 14 officers, left its dug-outs in the canal bank at Boesinghe where they had been since the 21st and moved up through Essex Farm and Buffs Road to St Julien. At 5.50 am on the 26th, after a biscuit and a spoonful of rum, the troops moved off from the start line, a tape dotted with numbered luminous discs marking the position of each platoon, pushing forward into a thick mist made worse by the clouds of dust and smoke sent up by the creeping artillery barrage. Orders called for a distance of 100 yards between platoons, 200 yards between companies. The QVR’s objectives were the German lines, which traversed Vale House, Clifton House and Aviatek Farm. Let us not imagine that Harry would be crossing fields of ripening wheat or running through orchards towards enemy defended farmhouses. The farms with their coded names were no more than map references, sections of the enemy’s line to be attacked and taken. The towns, villages, fields and woods of the salient had been pounded into a brown porridge of mud studded with bomb craters and littered with the awful detritus of war. Polygon Wood, as a wood, no longer existed; all that was left of the farmhouses were a few bricks screening enemy pill-boxes. Order was impossible in these conditions and communications difficult. Out of telephone, lamps, flags, pigeons, dogs and runner, the last named was still considered by Lieut. Spenser-Pryse to be “the most reliable (form of communication) since the battle of Marathon in 490BC. On the 26th our dogs simply ran round in circles or failed to start; the pigeons were not bad but would not fly after dark.” The attack, met with heavy machine gun and sniper fire, soon bogged down in shell holes short of the enemy line and the QVRs began to take heavy casualties(9). “At 6am, Lieut. John Marshall disappeared into the fog at the head of his platoon. Two platoons of D Company also vanished into the mist and were not seen again”.

Harry may have been in one of those lost platoons; in any event his body was never found. He is remembered on Panel 151 at Tyne Cot(10) cemetery along with the other 34,927 Commonwealth soldiers with no known grave. Harry died at a time when our families (the Lynns, the Maynes and the Roberts) were closer than they would ever be again; my mother, thirteen at the time, was probably very affected by her elder cousin’s death.


Rifleman No 393345 Harry William Mayne of Queen Victoria’s Rifles, killed in action 27th September 1917.


  1. Harry’s grandfather
  2. The first day of the Battle of the Somme. 801 men of the Newfoundland Regiment left the trenches; the next day only 69 answered roll call
  3. This is really the story of the 2/9th Queen Victoria’s Rifles. Harry originally enlisted as Rifleman No 5244 (date unknown) in the 11th London Regiment (“Finsbury Rifles”) and was later transferred to the QVRs probably in June when the QVRs were at Mory
  4. Davies Street runs from Oxford Street to Berkeley Square. No 56 is situated on the corner of St Anselm’s Place
  5. May Place, Peckham no longer exists
  6. All quotations from “History and Records of Queen Victoria’s Rifles 1792-1922” A C Keeson
  7. “Cubby Holes” in soldiers parlance; still used in our family in the 1950s to describe storage space under the stairs at our house in Petts Wood
  8. 5 out of the 14 officers and 73 out of the 400 other ranks were killed in the battle. The number of wounded is not recorded
  9. Tyne Cot so called after the Northumberland Fusiliers compared enemy pill-boxes to Tyneside workers cottages. The cemetery also contains the graves of 11,908 Commonwealth soldiers of which 70% are unknown. It is the largest war cemetery in the world
  10. Harry’s younger brothers George (17 years old in 1914) and Fred (21years old in 1914) both enlisted and returned safely from the war