'I died smiling, as I lived' - Billy Morris
A stash of World War I letters from her long-lost Uncle Billy led Lucinda O'Sullivan to his final resting place
Last week saw the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of World War I, which spanned four years from August 3, 1914 until November 11, 1918. Very many Irishmen and women fought in the Great War and it is really only now that they are being properly honoured.
My father's eldest brother, Billy Morris, aged 23, who had been working in the financial services district in what is known as the City of London, enlisted in 1916 in the Honourable Artillery Company, an elite regiment comprised solely of young men from the City. The HAC is the oldest regiment in the British Army and, after the Papal Swiss Guard, the second oldest military regiment in the world. The Queen is its Captain-General and it performs ceremonial duties for the Royal Family and visiting Heads of State.
The Morris family was from Kilkenny, owning the former Lacken Mills on the River Nore and living nearby on the Dublin Road. At this time, there still existed another world of parties and dances, hunting, shooting and fishing. My father Anselm, 14 years younger than Billy, was the second youngest of the family of six. He didn't marry until he was 50, which is why, unlike most people, I had an uncle rather than a granduncle in the Great War. My father died when I was young, but he always talked of the golden boy, Billy, whom they knew had been killed, but never knew quite how, or where he had been buried.
Six years ago, a cache of 30 letters between Billy and his sister, May Rose Morris, was given to me in which in true jolly hockey sticks terminology of the day, he called her a 'flapper', addressing her warmly throughout as 'My Dearest Miggles'. The letters gave an extraordinary insight into his life as a soldier from Richmond Park Training Camp to the Tower of London, to France and ultimately the Somme. Knowing Billy's tragic fate, I cried every time I read his thoughts and hopes and trials. It was all of this that led me on my own mission of honour to find and visit Billy's grave in the Somme.
"Send my rugger boots and jersey," jumped out at me in the first letter I opened. It was as if they were all off on one great big adventure. It struck me too that in many ways they could almost have been written by any young soldier of today in Afghanistan - keeping the best side out - anxious to know what life was like at home "how the season" was going, the parties and dances. He wanted his socks darned and looked for chocolate and "lightweight" novels to be sent - "as nothing serious was required in the circumstances."
It was all very Bertie Wooster-ish in tone as he wrote amusingly about knowing chaps from the King Edward Horse Regiment in London who were "all jolly fine chaps but rotten soldiers. They lounge around most awfully and are absolutely without discipline but, of course, they are 'it' with the girls." In November 1916, they were setting off for France and were "not sorry to get out of the Tower of London. I am in ripping form and best of spirits and delighted to be able to say I've been to France. Cheery oh! Everyone!"
The letters continued from "Somewhere in France". The first gave an account of sitting around in a luxurious Pullman coach instead of the expected cattle truck! It gave him time to list at length the equipment they carried - a gas mask, helmet, mug, knife and fork, 120 rounds of ammunition, clothing, a cardigan, cape, razor, a roll of lint, iodine, a boot brush, two army biscuits, two tins of bully beef, four bars of chocolate… Meanwhile his young brothers were writing about events in Kilkenny including tobogganing!
He writes amusingly of having a "tres bien" time in a village in France where the locals "never have any change, and always charge 100 per cent too much! Its very nice - the village, not the extortion - in its own dirty way." The air of camaraderie seemed very similar to that depicted in the TV series Band of Brothers. He describes an army section as "a family party". It was, he said, normally eight to 12 people who must do everything "en masse". "If I blow my nose, the other eleven should (strictly speaking) do so." He describes 24 of them sitting up on bunks with snow up to the edge and the "air red with pious prayer for the whole Army Council and all the Brigadiers who ever brigged."
By December 7, 1916, they were being rested as a reward for their labours following on a successful dangerous mission which, he said, had been reported in the Daily Mirror to the effect that a certain very English battalion had taken prisoners to about three times the extent of all their casualties. "Other regiments had been previously wiped out and the regiment beside us on those days caught it badly: our losses, tho' we achieved more, were paltry in comparison." He remarked in many of the letters that the tougher it got, he more he liked it.
Another letter from around that time talks about their Primus stove, scrambled eggs and how they sometimes got some Mexican chocolate. Billy seemed to live on chocolate as he hated the bully beef, but he did say that their field kitchen was very good to them - unless they were out and on emergency rations - but there were undoubtedly periods of hunger.
He continually asked for letters and news of home. "I don't know what it must be like to be clean and spruce in a real room with pretty girls and music and cosy corners and trifles. I've got a lovely little spot deep down in a dear old dugout. The two corporals and two of the boys of my section are busy all day at auction bridge. Tell me more about the dance, or send me a paper. I am now off to melt some water on the brazier for tea. I wish you saw our happy home. I am, by far, the dirtiest of the lot. I have not washed for, well I really shouldn't tell you, as you mightn't let me in when I go home. This may be any day now according to all of the prophets. Personally I'm quite confident poor old Fritz is done and there is already happiness to be pinched. It's too funny to see us perfect pals all the time giving them cigarettes and trying to haggle. In fact nobody feels a bit ferocious or wants to be in the least bit rude to one another - Fare thee well I must leave thee - P.S. We've shifted from where we were, rather suddenly, just after I had finished this. You can have the distinction of saying your parcel reached me in one of Fritz's marvellous underground villages in a dugout. I told you what a blessing it was!"
However, despite the cheery optimism, the next letter to arrive home was ominously black bordered and totally heartbreaking, accompanied by a standard War Office sympathy letter from the King and Queen.
"My dearest, ever dearest Mum, If this ever reaches you, I shall have made the great sacrifice just like many another mother's son. I shall have made it cheerfully and thank God bravely like a good soldier. But, I shall not have made it unthinkingly. I shall have remembered you all while memory is possible with me and I shall have died with Mum on my lips. The Blessed Virgin has watched over me out here. She has been with me night and day thro' all the hardships, all the horrors, all the long ghastly struggles against the seeming impossible physical and mental tasks. How foolish we are to think too much of this old world! When I wrote this I was young and rosy cheeked and strong. Laughing, joking and singing, in spite of all. But we all know that tomorrow we might face our God. We shall all meet and be happier than we ever dreamt of where trenches and shells are not. This is the bravest thing I have done, darling, to say goodbye to you beforehand. But it is worth it to know you'll be cheered and inspired. 'Little One and her soldier boy. God Bless them'. Dear brave Miggles. She has done her part in the war. Harder than many a soldier's and I can't tell her how I admire her and love her. Lawdie Ancy! - A fine chap he'll be. A Dieu. We shall meet again.So now cheery oh! Once again my sweetheart Mum - my only sweetheart be happy. I died smiling - as I lived"
His 1st Battalion HAC platoon had gone over the top on the night of February 7 1917 and, being one of the first to reach the objective, Billy received a bomb wound penetrating his stomach and died a few days later at a field hospital.
Technology is wonderful these days, and I traced Billy's grave to the tiny village of Varennes, near Albert, in the Somme, where we stood and let him know he was not forgotten. The graveyard is magnificently maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, with each grave bedecked with roses. I picked two yellow roses from his grave, which I have now with his letters. We may be 100 years on but the Somme is truly a sombre area filled with graveyards and memorials to all of the young men who died so needlessly.
After I first wrote about Billy's letters in 2008, more information came forth including the fact that his name is on a memorial plaque in his old school Clongowes Wood College. They also sent me a picture of him captaining a rugby team and a copy of a letter from his "inseparable pal" Michael Morrow Jackson to my grandparents describing in detail how Billy had died.
I only wish my father had lived to find Billy.