Listen to the wraiths of morning in Flanders fields of grey,
Can you hear The Royal Sussex who came and went away
And linger still in graves unknown amidst the furrow and the thorn.
But never flinched, duty done, these sons of Sussex bred and born.
100 years ago today, my great-great uncle Alfred Sidney Mercer – known as Sonny – died on the battlefront in Belgium.
Despite being underage (just 15) Sonny, from Farnham in Surrey, enlisted at either Aldershot or Guildford in early September 1915, and was assigned to the Royal Sussex Regiment. How did his parents feel? Did they give him their blessing, or did they only find out when it was too late to do much about it? And what of his siblings reactions? My grandfather Rev, named after a once-revered soldier-general, was next in age to Sonny; did he yearn to join up, too?
Teenage recruits, British Army, WW1
Sonny was placed in the 11th Service Battalion of the 1st South Downs (the Battalion having moved from Sussex to Aldershot in September 1915 and in October 1915 to Witley, south east of Aldershot and Farnham, whereby it came under command of the 116th Brigade in 39th Division).
In February 1916 the 39th mobilised for war and landed at Havre in March. After further training the Division were soon involved in a diverse and what appear to be continuous (and remorseless) series of action on the Western Front. These included: 1916 – an attack near Richebourg l’Avoue, The fighting on the Ancre, The Battle of Thiepval Ridge, The Battle of the Ancre Heights, The Battle of the Ancre. 1917 – The Battle of Pilkem Ridge, The Battle of Langemarck, The Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, The Battle of Polygon Wood, The Second Battle of Passchendaele. 1918 – The Battle of St Quentin, The Battle of Bapaume, The Battle of Rosieres, The fighting on Wytschaete Ridge, The First Battle of Kemmel, The Second Battle of Kemmel, and for Sonny finally, The Battle of the Scherpenberg. Such a blunt, factual list of battles, which can in no way could begin to describe the mayhem, violence and terror endured by the men and women, animals and landscape of the Western Front.
Scherpenberg Hill, the scene of the Battle of Scherpenberg in April 1918
The days (weeks, in reality) leading up to the 29th April 1918 were marked by constant, at times heavy – or as the 116th’s War Diary stated, “violent” – shelling. During the course of this day Sonny went missing, and was ultimately presumed dead. The one detail his official Army death record omitted was his age. Sonny was just 19 years old.
He is remembered at Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing in Zonnebeke, Belgium as one of these missing. A modest memorial also stands in Gostrey Meadow in Farnham which commemorates the fallen of Farnham during the Great War, with “A.S.Mercer” inscribed among the many other names.
Memorial to the Fallen of WW1, Gostrey Meadow, Farnham, Surrey, England
As children I remember how we would stand on its plinth and trace with our fingers the engraved letters of his name. I did not know how I should feel. Pride? Grief? Some kind of innate understanding of what his loss meant to his parents and siblings, and to his wider family? I was a child, but I think I knew even then that I should, and wanted to, feel more than just a thrill of excitement that a family member’s name was on public display in the park where we so often played.
The Next of Kin Memorial Scroll WW1
Sonny was, and is, one unique piece in a myriad of puzzle pieces which make up a family, a country, and a collective humanity. While there never was, and never will be anything humane about war, about injury, about loss and grief, yet these experiences are each part of the tapestry which binds us together.
And I reflect upon a forever 19-year-old young man, missing, never found, sunk into the landscape of a green field, come battlefield, now pasture again, and I wonder which part of the ground is nourished by his body? Macabre? No more so than when I visit my mother’s grave, and appreciate the flowers blooming and thriving where her body lies.
We rise, we live, for either a moment or a seeming eternity, and we fall. Even we, even so.
Mercy for Sonny
Barbed wire buried
deep in the fields I am grown in,
enmeshed roots, sods, earth,
holding light and rain and warmth,
rusting the wire,
April 28, 2018
The poppies of Flanders fields