Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Uncle Jack's 'Birdsong'.

My great uncle Jack (37491 Sapper Jack Wesley, of the NZ Engineer Tunnelling company) died on 2nd October 1917. His service record gives no clues about how he died, what he was doing, or exactly where he died. It just says 'Killed in action in Field Belgium'. His body lies in the cemetery Faubourg d'Amiens at Arras. I guess he was luckier than some (if you could call it that); at least his body was identifiable and able to be buried in a 'known' grave.

But he remains a family mystery, other than the fact that he was my mother's uncle because, you see, my mother didn't talk about her family (neither did my father talk about his family really). All we have to go on is a slightly charred photo of Jack (and I have the feeling that there is a story there somewhere too, about how the photo came to be charred around the edges, as if rescued from a fire somewhere), and a photocopy of his service record that we requested and received from the NZ Defence Forces. The record tells us that he had been a bit of a lad in his relatively brief time in the army (with several visits to hospital for what might more delicately be described as 'social diseases' of the time).

So apart from these few scant details Jack's life remains something of an enigma that, while hardly keeping me awake at night, still puzzles me whenever I open my bedside draw and see his photo sitting there. The year before last I read 'Birdsong', a novel by Sebastian Faulkes. The book details the life of soldiers serving in the English tunnelling units. The imagery in the book is vivid; as I read I recall feeling the cloying sense of claustrophobia that must have been the daily reality for these men. Had this been the experience, the life, of Jack Wesley?

Several years ago Lorraine and I visited the tunnels (or Boves) beneath Arras. Had Jack walked that way 90 years before? We visited his grave at Faubourg d'Amiens, and were deeply saddened that we were probably the first family members to have visited his grave since his body was interred there. We will go back. Jack is our personal connection with the millions of lives lost in the Great War. We still puzzle over what his life was like, and how he was lost to his family. That is of course the story of an entire generation; that is why we see so many stone memorials in any town we visit in New Zealand, and would do in any other nation involved in the war.


  1. awww these stories always make me sad. Did you see his pic on Auckland museums cenotaph database...here it is here http://muse.aucklandmuseum.com/databases/cenotaph/RecordDetail.aspx?OriginalID=16656&SearchID=7618335&Ordinal=2 he looked like a fabulous fellow didn't he.

  2. Sarndra

    Fantastic.. I thing we spotted that a few months ago. I am beginning to understand how millions must have felt. I want to know what happened.. I've looked in the unit history, and it gives no clue about where he was, or what he (the unit) was doing on that day... not sure where else to look now. You'd think with my museums experience I'd know where to look next.. nope.
    Thanks for the link.


  3. Hello Robin

    Just a note to say that I'd love to touch base with you as I am a lay community researcher of the NZ Tunnelling Company. You might be interested in my website and Facebook page below. I can be contacted through the website contact email address.