On this date in 1916, 19-year-old Durham Private William Nelson was shot for desertion by the British military.
by Thomas Hardy
I walked in loamy Wessex lanes, afar
From rail-track and from highway, and I heard
In field and farmstead many an ancient word
Of local lineage like “Thu bist,” “Er war,”
“Ich woll,” “Er sholl,” and by-talk similar,
Nigh as they speak who in this month’s moon gird
At England’s very loins, thereunto spurred
By gangs whose glory threats and slaughters are.
Then seemed a Heart crying: “Whosoever they be
At root and bottom of this, who flung this flame
Between folk kin tongued even as are we,
“Sinister, ugly, lurid, be their fame;
May their familiars grow to shun their name,
And their brood perish everlastingly.”
According to the archive capture of the lamentably defunct Shot at Dawn site — which campaigned (successfully) for clearing the names of World War I soldiers who had been executed for military failings like desertion or cowardice — Nelson gave a pitiable account of his situation. It was less the horror of trench warfare and mustard gas than desperation on his own home front that undid Nelson’s “nerves”.
“I have had a lot of trouble at home, and my nerves are badly upset. My father is a prisoner in Germany and is losing his eyesight there through bad treatment. My mother died while I was still in England, leaving my sister aged 13 and my brother aged 10. I am the only one left. I had to leave them in charge of a neighbour. I had no intention of deserting. I did not realise what I was doing when I left the camp. When I did so I went and gave myself up. When I went to the store my object was to get a night’s sleep and then go and surrender in the morning. I thought it was too late to do so that night. I did not know when the battalion was coming out of the trenches.”
by Thomas Hardy
If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”
Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
–Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.
That 13-year-old sister whom Nelson worried over long suffered her brother’s senseless death. In 2004, that woman’s daughter (Billy Nelson’s niece), Nora High, told the Guardian:
Every Armistice Day, my mother shed buckets of tears. We’ve got Billy’s Bible, I got that when mother died. She used to lay that out on a piece of blue satin cloth, and she would cry. She always said: ‘I won’t cry any more because that only upsets Billy. He doesn’t want me to cry. Everything’s fine for him now.’
by Thomas Hardy
Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.
* The title is a Biblical allusion to Jeremiah 51:20.
As a slight stretch, part of the Themed Set: Thomas Hardy.