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  • Claire Jordan

Father & Son

Little Robbie Lee was born in Peckham, south-east London, on 22nd January 1897 where his colourful Dad George was working as a stage (coach) porter.

George’s own mother Ann had died eleven days after his own birth, but George had clung to life; he had come to London from his native Argyll & Bute and married local girl Frances Ainsley in April 1896.

By 1911, George was the publican at the Star & Garter pub on New Cross Road (still there today).

In August 1914, Robbie seems already to have been a Gunner in the Royal Artillery, landing in France ten days into the War.

No one seems to have noticed he was not yet 18.

But back home Mum and Dad felt that someone had to look after him.

For a start, the Army would only take men up to age 41 and Dad George was now 42. But he seems to have served earlier in life with the Royal Artillery and the Army would take all the help they could get from experienced soldiers.

So George climbed back into uniform and eventually managed to follow his only child across the Channel with the Artillery on 11th December 1915.

By Christmas 1915, Frances Emma, back home in Peckham, must surely have had very mixed feelings. Her husband of twenty years and their only child were now at War, but they were at least together, posted eventually to the same Battery of 156th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery.

And so it was that George was a Sergeant and Robbie a Corporal on the same gun team on 5th September 1916, two months into the Battle of the Somme, when the same shell took them both in the same instant somewhere near Montauban.

They were buried side by side a couple of miles west of where they fell.

When the time came to fill in the War Graves Commission’s forms, Frances clearly thought long and hard about what she wanted engraved onto their headstones.

For her husband George, she settled on: “He Toiled and Suffered, Faithful to the End.”

For her son: “My Love For Him Will Still Be Green and Never Fade Away.”

She sent off the forms, paid the 3d per letter, and the Commission’s engravers had been instructed when another letter from Frances amended her decision.

She asked for her original inscriptions to be changed and for both George and Robbie, she now chose: “Thy Will Be Done.”

Why she changed her original deeply personal words into ones of simple acceptance is unknowable. It’s hard to imagine the tormented thought-processes amongst which Frances Lee foundered during those long lonely years which followed the day on which she received those two telegrams in September 1916.

George had done as she’d wished him to do; he had followed their boy into an abyss where she could not go, and he had looked after Robbie, kept faith with him, right up to their very last moments.

One can only hope there was some comfort for her in this thought.

She was 62 and still living on the same road in Peckham, when she finally went to find them both in the summer of 1935.

And for we who come after them, there are forever more those two dignified headstones in the back row at Dartmoor Cemetery, Becordel-Becourt on the Somme.

Every time we go, we make a point to find them and take their photo again.

It never seems right to pass them by unacknowledged.

There, together, they always are, on the longest day of the year and the shortest, at the going down of the sun and in the morning.

And every time you stand before them, you know for sure (in case there was ever any doubt) that love always wins in the end.

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