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  • Claire Jordan

Sleep tight, dearies

Have been thinking all day today about a lady called Eleanor Augusta Bell.

She was the beautifully-named daughter of a Northamptonshire bootmaker and just before Christmas 1888, aged 22, she married a young Shoreditch man named Frank Gore with the same profession as her father. They settled in West Ham.

Daughter Edith Eleanor soon arrived, but the following decade brought four babies who died in infancy.

Finally, out of the ashes of the old century came a new joy, a phoenix child: Eleanor’s sixth and last baby survived and would be adored beyond measure his whole life.

Big sister Edith was 12 by the time this tenacious miracle arrived, and she helped Mum to look after the precious new life who made it through those first precarious weeks and months and became little Len.

Nineteen years later, Eleanor’s little boy was facing the enemy from a place called Weedle Wood, near Bouchavesnes, 15 miles east of Albert.

August was turning into September 1918: the end was finally in sight.

Len was with 20th Londons, whose Adjutant recorded:

"Battalion attacked at 5.30am behind creeping barrage with 19th Londons on left and 58th Division on right in an east-north-east direction, objective being trench system on western outskirts of Moislains Wood.

…Objectives reached but casualties very heavy owing to stiff resistance of enemy machine gun nests.

Captain RS Gain took charge of [surviving] elements of all four Companies and organised defence of objective.

Touch was gained with 19th Londons who were in trench 200 yards to our left rear and with 58th Division on our right. At noon, half of HQ Company went forward to strengthen front line."

The day was won, in the end, but Len was lost.

His body was eventually identified when the battlefields were cleared by ‘name in helmet’. Perhaps Eleanor had impressed upon him the importance of writing his name into his school kit and it was a hard habit to break.

Len was buried at Hem Farm Military Cemetery, about five miles from where he fell that day.

That simple act of writing his name into his helmet would be his last gift to his Mum; it gave her the chance to memorialise him in a way she would not have been afforded, had his body remained lost.

When they sent the form to Eleanor, asking if she wished to specify an inscription for his headstone, she thought long and hard about what to put.

She remembered how small he’d always looked tucked into his bed, the last of her children and how well he always slept. He was such a good boy, never any trouble.

In the end, she settled on ‘My Dear Len, Asleep’ for his headstone, because that was the only way she felt she could keep going, to remember the peace which came over the house when she’d put him to bed, and how much she enjoyed knowing for a few hours where he was and that he was safe and warm and nothing could hurt him.

A month after Len fell, far away in the Balkans, Len’s big sister Edith’s husband Walter Booker would be killed in action with the Rifle Brigade. Edith eventually chose a similar theme for his headstone: ‘So Sleep On, Dear One, in a Far-Off Land, Until the Day of Dawn’.

Eleanor and Edith, I’m wearing my poppy for you this year, for your dear Len and Walter, for everyone who was lost and who lost someone they loved. Sleep tight, dearies.

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