Saturday, January 18, 2014

’On a celtic cross, a young man in a photograph': World War One

As the first world war began how many families proudly affixed to the parlour wall a portrait of their fine young man in his uniform? How many of those portraits were rimmed in black crepe by the war's end in 1918, as a picture which was once a point of pride became an icon of mourning?

On this blog I have shared the stories of the young men in our family (Dunne, Pell, Kettle) who were killed during the First World War, and I hope you will take the time to revisit those stories. In my photographic archive, I have photographs of only two of the young men lost to my family, William Dunne and Thomas Michael Kettle, and I dearly wish I had a picture of William Pell. Such images secure our connection to their past and serve as emblems which prompt remembrance.

This blog post is about another young man in an image, a young man to whom I am not related, who also gave his life on a battlefield in Europe so very long ago.

Francis Lyons
Many of us who wander through graveyards, searching for the graves of family members who died long ago, sometimes find ourselves drawn to the grave of someone to whom we have no connection. Perhaps there is something about a carved detail on the stone, or maybe it is one line in the inscription, which makes us want to know more about those in whose memory the marker was erected.

On an unseasonably warm January day, I was at Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin searching for the unmarked grave of one of my maternal great-grandmother's sisters, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a photograph affixed to a simple celtic cross, and I felt drawn to look at it. It turned out to be a very old image of a young man in uniform. I felt compelled to learn more about the tender looking soldier gazing out of that image. The inscription on the stone provided many details which helped to guide me in finding out more about him and his family.

The stone reads,

In / Loving Memory / of / Elizabeth Lyons / 27 High St. / Beloved Wife Of / John Lyons / Died 1st April 1897 / Aged 32 years / Her daughter / Elizabeth M / Died 18th July 1897 / Aged 3 years / and her son / Sergeant Francis Lyons / No. 6626 1st Batt. R.D.F. / Killed in Action France / 21st March 1918 / Her Sister / Julia Byrne / Died 27th Aug. 1926 / R.I.P. / Sacred Heart of Jesus / Have Mercy On Their Souls.

The image that drew me to this grave is of the Lyons' son Francis. As the stone reveals, Francis was a soldier in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. The addition of his service number 6626 made it easier to find his First World War record of service.

Francis Lyons was a Sergeant in 'Y' Company, First Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers. As the grave stone attests, he was killed 21 March 1918. Francis was killed at the very beginning of a period of battle which took place between March and August of 1918. During this time of less than five months, the Allied Fourth and Fifth Armies were driven back across the Somme battlefields; thousands of soldiers perished, and Francis Lyons was among their number. His body was never recovered and so he has no known grave; however he is memorialized on the Pozieres Memorial in Amiens, France.

Further research on Francis Lyons's family led me to think that perhaps there are no longer any family members left to remember Francis, so last July when we were in France I felt compelled to visit the memorial on which he is commemorated. We left Paris early in the morning and drove north and east to Amiens, and the Pozieres Memorial, passing several smaller military cemeteries along the way. The countryside was wide open and green, while the clouds rolling in had that slight timbre of rumbling within them which signals a storm. After driving for just over two hours, we reached Pozieres. The imposing gateway is right next to the highway, and the cemetery dominates the surrounding landscape.

The principal gate of the Pozieres Memorial.
The inscription at the top of the principal gate describes those for whom the memorial stands:

In memory of the officers and men of the fifth and 
fourth armies who fought on the Somme battlefields 
21st March - 7th August 1918 and of those of their dead 
who have no known graves

Taken from just inside the main gate, this image gives a sense of the breadth of the memorial.
The Pozieres Memorial commemorates the loss of 14,656 souls. The panels on the surrounding walls are filled with the names of those killed who have no known grave; the inscriptions are in order by regiment. As you can see from the dates recorded on the gate, Francis Lyons was among those who were killed on the very first day of this period of battle.

On the day we visited, the rain held off, and after reading many of the other panels and following the numbers for a while, we went to panels 79 and 80, and there found the inscription in remembrance of Francis Lyons — LYONS,F. along with those of his fellow regiment members.


The sixth name down in the list of Serjeants lost: LYONS, F.
Francis Lyons is not only remembered at Pozieres, he is also commemorated on the pages of Ireland's Memorial Records, although there is a slight discrepancy in the dates. In the records of Pozieres, and on the gravestone in Glasnevin, the date is noted as 21 March 1918, but on Ireland's Memorial Records, the date is recorded as 3 April 1918. Whatever the precise date might be, on the day Francis Lyons was forever lost to his family on the battlefields of northern France, he was only 30 years old. May the precious picture affixed to his family's grave stone long stand in his memory.

Be sure to visit the Sepia Saturday blog to see how others have interpreted today's theme.

Copyright©irisheyesjg2014.
Click on images to view larger versions.

10 comments:

  1. This is a tribute in its own right as you have followed up a story of one lost who was not known to you. Those cemeteries and memorials to the lost and those with unknown graves are always unsettling, Thank you for Francis' story.

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    1. Thanks Bob; your comments are very much appreciated. I sincerely hope that somewhere there are still Lyons family members and perhaps they will find this tribute to Francis.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  2. I’m so glad to hear that Frances is being remembered in this way, not just by you for bringing him to our attention in this remarkable way, but now by all of us.

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    1. Thanks Little Nell; your comments are very much appreciated. Indeed, I hope he will be remembered by many.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  3. That is a handsome cross that would have drawn my eye too. And good for you to take the time to find out more about Francis Lyons.

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

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  4. My older sister would call it kismet that you spotted that photo. I guess the person who put it there hoped someone would learn more about Francis. Thank you for sharing his story.

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    1. Thanks very much Charlotte for your comments. I also believe in the idea of fate or kismet, especially in the field of stone that is Glasnevin, I feel somehow it was meant for me to have spotted the photo.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  5. Your post is my favorite of the blogs taking up this weekend's Sepia Saturday theme. It is a special honor to do this for a forgotten soldier and you are to be commended for your perseverance in recording his name from the monument in France. The photo of the cemetery (which is only one of many) is particularly moving. I've read several histories of WW1 and still have difficulty understanding the enormity of the loss lives, but a single picture describes far more than pages of words.

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    1. Thank you Mike for your lovely comments. The photo of Francis certainly spoke to me more than volumes of histories about the first world war. In a way it made me feel as though it was my duty to learn his story. The Lyons family had already suffered so much with the loss of their mother and a sister; it seemed cruel that Francis was taken so young too. Unfortunately far too many families knew young loss.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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Cheers, Jennifer

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