Monday, September 23, 2013

William Dunne & William Pell: Following the road of my two Williams

In the early afternoon of a day on which change in the weather seemed to match my mood, we set out toward Messines, Belgium. The countryside in both France and Belgium is beautiful in its simplicity, lulling you into a sort of serene blissfulness, but then the history of the place calls out to you. The losses of war are ever present as the natural landscape is interrupted time and again by the sight of yet another cemetery filled with military graves.

On either side of the Great Cross of Sacrifice, two large weeping willow trees
add to the beauty and peace of Prowse Point.
Our destination on this day is Prowse Point Military Cemetery, the final resting place of the men I call my two Williams, my paternal great-grandmother's brother, William Dunne, and my maternal grandfather's first cousin, William Pell. It is purely happenstance that these two members of my family are interred in the same cemetery. Their sides of the family tree would not be joined together until my mother and father married, some forty years after William and William were killed on the field of battle during the First World War. 

Messines, Belgium
Turning just off Rue de Messines, I slowly follow the narrow road past a small farm house on the left. An old woman in a garden sweeps the sweat from her brow and nods in our direction, as though she knows exactly where we are going. It is difficult not to be drawn in by the landscape. The beautiful wide open fields are replete with burgeoning crops, sugar beets, potatoes, and barley. It seems all of life is here, food, earth, air, and family.

As I draw the car up onto the narrow pebble and grass shoulder of the road, dark skies hold heavy over Prowse Point cemetery, and I am sure it might start raining very soon. We climb out of the car and turn toward Messines. The village seems such a short distance away, a distance which must have seemed like light years to my two Williams.

A church still dominates the village as one did from the 11th century until the early part of the 20th century, before the First World War brought the bombardment that would level the church and the entire village, leaving only rubble and dust. There is something life affirming in seeing that the village was reborn, and the church was rebuilt.

The simple entry gate for Prowse Point Military Cemetery.
We turn away from Messines and toward Prowse Point. Before we open the gate and walk through, I immediately see William Dunne's grave. It is just a couple of yards from the gate. William and his fellow soldiers were some of the first interred here at Prowse Point. Their stones are the only ones in the cemetery which are drawn so close together, standing shoulder to shoulder, reminding us that when they were interred the three men's bodies may have been so destroyed as to be unrecognizable, and so they were interred together. They were killed 20 November 1914, William Dunne, age 34, of Dublin City, Ireland, and James McGuire, age 44, and James Gallagher, age 19, both of County Donegal, Ireland.

Three comrades together.
William Dunne's marker is on the far right.
All three markers note the date of death as 20th November 1914.
Kneeling just to the right of William’s stone, so as not to tread on the grave, I lay my hand on the face of the marker. It feels cool to the touch. My index finger follows the carved path which they have as his name — W. Dunne — as I say his full name aloud, William Dunne. I murmur a prayer and then make the pledge that he will never be forgotten. The flowers which once grew at the base of William's stone are gone, so only a small shrub grows there now. Instantly I regret not bringing a rose bush from Paris to plant in his honour, to show he is not forgotten.

A Soldier of The Great War
Known unto God.
We leave William for a moment and walk along the rows of graves observing the names, ages and countries of those interred. I recite each name out loud to the open sky. It seems fitting that each one of these names should once again float on the gentle breeze. So too, there are the graves of the unknown, marked A Soldier of The Great War / Known unto God. These stones give you pause to think about the family members of those interred within. I picture mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers searching through the cemeteries in the area, longing to find their family member who has no known grave, and wondering which grave holds their son or father, husband or brother. 

The deep quiet of the cemetery is broken by the sound of a tractor out on the narrow road. We look up to see a farmer hauling bales of hay. He waves his hat to us in greeting, and we return the sentiment. This brief exchange reminds me of the fact that the world still turned, that life went on without all of these young men, and so many, many more. The skies darken again, the wind becomes more determined, and the weeping willows rustle insistently, seeming to say, 'Remember, remember, remember!'

William Pell
Royal Dublin Fusiliers
7th January 1915 Age 23
As we continue to walk from stone to stone, the clouds part and the sun begins to shine, the sky feels wide open, and the air is fresh and clear. It makes me feel grateful to be alive. We arrive at the grave of my second William, William Pell. A stunning red rose sways in the breeze gently caressing the stone. I kneel down and repeat the ritual of tracing William's name as they have it — Wm. Pell —  as I say his full name out loud, William Francis Pell, then repeat a prayer, and make the pledge that he will never be forgotten.

Closing my eyes, I turn my face up to the glorious sun, feel her warm embrace, and think about the fact that the two Williams lived and died under this same sky. In the mornings of their lives their faces were awakened to the same sun, and at night their eyes closed under the same moon. All around us the fields are brimming with colour, green and gold, red and orange, and I realize how very different this landscape is from the one my two Williams knew. 

The trenches, the mud, the fire and the smoke, the stench from fields littered with the dead and the dying, theirs was a world so removed from earthly life, a special kind of hell. Scanning this earth and sky, I try to imagine what it was like for each one of them when they fell. Was the end sudden and swift or did they lie waiting to die, crying out for comfort that would never come, while the stretcher bearers scurried about choosing who to take and who to leave behind? What thoughts crossed the mind of each William as he realized his life was drawing to a close? Whose was the last face they saw?

We remain at Prowse Point for much longer than we intended. It is a difficult place to leave. In the book of memory that is kept with the cemetery register, I write what seem to be empty platitudes, asking for peace in our world, and for the remembrance of William and William, members of my family, neither of whom I ever knew and could not possibly know, since we did not exist in the same dimension of time, but to whom I nevertheless feel a deep connection. Thinking about the sacrifice each William made makes me feel ashamed for becoming frustrated about minor challenges I face in everyday life, the things that don’t quite go my way.

Plaque acknowledging the perpetual gift
by the Belgian people of the cemetery land.
Inside the small brick and mortar building on the western side of the cemetery is the plaque [inset left] which acknowledges the donation of the land by the Belgian people for the burial of members of the Allied armies. It is interesting to note that while both the French and Dutch translation refers to the fallen as heroes, the English plaque simply refers to 'those' who fell.

Transcription of the English plaque:
The land on which this cemetery stands is the free gift of the Belgian people for the perpetual resting place of those of the Allied Armies who fell in the war of 1914 - 1918 and are honoured here.

Translation of French plaque:
The ground of this cemetery was graciously offered by the Belgian people to serve in perpetuity. Field of the heroes of the armed Allied graves during the Great War of 1914 - 1918 and whose memory is honoured here.

Translation of the Dutch plaque:
The Belgian population gave this land as perpetual resting place of the fallen heroes of the Allied armies of the World War 1914 - 1918 and whose memory we honour here.

William Dunne and William Pell gave their lives. They are the only ones who truly knew exactly why they volunteered to go, but they did. They gave their lives for an imperative, meanwhile back in Dublin, Ireland, their respect families awaited their return, not knowing they would never again see their William.

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  1. War cemeterys are sobeing places and though I have only visited the ones in the UK I would dearly like to visit the ones in France & Belgum.Thanks for taking the time to show us your family

    1. Thanks for your comments Bill. They are always much appreciated.


  2. Jenn, I can hear a catch in your voice while you are writing, very poignant. What a coincidence the two Williams are buried in the same cemetery. Thanks for sharing this journey with us.

    1. Thanks for your comments Charlotte. They are always much appreciated.



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