Unmarked grave – a war story

“It is a terrible war and the greatest sacrifices I am certain are those made by women like you at home with children to care for”
Lieutenant Harry Saxon – King’s Own (Lancaster)

Today marks 100 years since an event that cast a long shadow across my family. My Great-Grandad Sam Covell was killed on August 16th 1916, one of the million or so casualties of the Battle of the Somme. Sam was quite old for a Somme casualty as he was 32. He was married and had four young kids, the youngest was my Nana Ivy,  just a baby when her Dad died.

Sam Covell was born in Nottingham in 1883. His family were poor and life was harsh. When he was just ten years old, his Dad committed suicide by slitting his own throat in the outside toilet. Sam was one of 12 children (although not all of them had survived) and from that point on he was out at work, aged 10, in order to help support his younger brothers and sisters. The 1901 census lists his occupation as a bricklayer but that was about to change.

The Covell Family (left to right – Charlie, Sally, Ivy, Sam Sr, Sam Jr & Lily

That same year aged 18 he joined the Royal Marines Light Infantry as a gunner. His military career didn’t last long though. Just one year later in 1902 Sam was forced to leave on a free discharge (compassionate grounds) when his Mum died suddenly of gastroenteritis. Sam had to assume responsibility for some of his younger siblings to prevent them being put into the dreaded Workhouse. Between Sam and some of his older sisters they managed to keep all the family out of the workhouse.

Sam worked as general labourer on building sites and in an iron foundry. He married Sally Truswell in 1906 and their kids were born soon after – Sam in 1907, Charlie in 1909, Lily in 1911 and Ivy in 1914. At some point between 1911 and 1914 the family moved to Preston and Sam worked at Dilworth & Carr Pipe Foundary.

Preston is where my Nana Ivy was born in July 1914 – the same month war was declared between Britain and Germany. In October 1914, now aged 31 and with his youngest daughter just a few months old Sam enlisted and joined the Kings Own (Lancaster). That’s probably when this photo was taken (see left). We don’t know much about his war activities apart from that in March 1915 he was awarded the Military Medal for Bravery in the field. What we do know is that in August 1916 during the Battle for Delville Wood he was killed. Sam was just a few days shy of his 33rd birthday leaving Sally a widow with 4 kids aged 9, 7, 5 and 2.

Letters from France 

A few years ago my Mum showed me some astonishing letters that had belonged to her Grandma Sally Covell. We had been looking at Sam’s medals, some photos of him and a newspaper clipping of his death announcement.  But these letters were more personal and more heart wrenching than any official papers.

Untitled design (8)They were written by a young officer called Harry Saxon. Harry was just 21 years old and the son of a vicar in Preston. We know that he was educated at Kings College Cambridge and presumably still a student when he joined the war effort. Harry was Sam’s commanding officer and it is clear from the letters the high regard he held for Sam, a much older man and from a different social class. Perhaps the most harrowing lines are when Harry describes his efforts to locate Sam’ s body.

“The night after the attack I went out and looked for your poor husband’s body; but there were so many lying out there in no man’s land that I had to give up the search after a time.”

It’s hard to imagine why Harry would even attempt this dangerous act, when they were losing men on a daily basis, it was simply not practical to retrieve the dead. But that action, suggests to me the high regard with which he held Sam, it is an act of friendship amidst the horrors of the trenches. As Harry put it – “You at home cannot understand the conditions under which we fight.”

ThiepvalMem CovellE1The fact that he would take time to write these two letters is I think an incredible kindness. He attempts to try and give information, some closure and comfort to a widow. He promises to take her to France when the war is over to show her where her husband fell. Harry comes over as well educated and articulate and I try and imagine the comfortable academic life this young 21 year old lad had left behind. To me Harry sounds brave and dignified,  but also reading between the lines you can get a glimpse at the shock and terror he was experiencing. [You can read the full text of the letters by playing the video at the top of this post]

Unmarked grave 

These letters fascinated me and stuck with me. I eventually wrote a song ‘Unmarked grave’ that appeared on Greedy Magicians. The song took these letters as a starting point but imagines the soldier coming home and trying to live with the horror of what he had seen out there on the battlefield. [Hear the song in the video at the top of this post]

Sadly Harry never did come home and there were no more letters. He lost his life just a few short months later in November 1916. Sally never did get to see the exact spot where her husband fell like Harry had promised, but years later her daughter Lily would.

One hundred years is a long time  but this chapter of history is very real and present to me. My Mum was very close to her Grandma Sally who had been left to raise four kids on her own, in fear of the workhouse – no mean feat through the economic hardships of the 1920s.  Sally must’ve done a good job as her kids all lived into their eighties and beyond. lilyI remember them all with great love and fondness – my Uncle Sam and Uncle Charlie (both gifted musicians), my Auntie Lily (wicked sense of humour),  and especially my lovely Nana Ivy who showered us with love and freshly baked scones.

Auntie Lily lived to be 100 and just a few years before that my sister and her family took her to France so she could see the area where her Dad died. Here she is in this photo along with my Mum, Sister, Brother-in-law and my nephews  – the next generation of our family, also there to honour and remember Sam Covell.

‘Celebrating’ the war

Like many I feel an unease about the recent ‘celebrations’ of the Great War, especially when politicians use it for their own modern day agenda. For all the talk of ‘noble sacrifice’ we must also remember the pointless slaughter on both sides. This story of Sam Covell reminds us of the hardships and heartbreak war brought for those left behind in grief and in poverty, with no welfare state to support them. And his was just one of 744,000 British deaths.

what he died for

The official letter from the army told Sally her husband had died for “a sacred cause” and so “England might live free”.  I struggle to find any peace in that jingoistic spin and so I don’t know exactly what Sam Covell ‘died for’? But during my recent work as songwriter in residence at The People’s History Museum I was astonished to discover that at the time of World War One 46% of British men had no right to vote. That meant 5 million men, many of whom would have been fighting for that ‘sacred cause’, had no democratic say.

England might live free as a result of their bravery, but those men and their families certainly didn’t. In 1918 as the war ended the right to vote was hurriedly extended to all men over 21 and to women over 30. Of course the war wasn’t fought for the right to vote, but it may have been one of the few positive outcomes from it and I will remember Sam and Sally the next time I cast my vote.

Huge thanks to my Mum Margaret Hill for her dedication to researching our family history and trying to put facts and dates onto the stories she heard from her Grandma, Aunties and Uncles. Also a massive thank you to my friend Mike Jackson for his many hours of research that helped us uncover Sam and Harry’s war story and the information we needed to enable Lily to finally make that trip to France.