Tom Stephenson – External Funding Officer
“Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of you.
Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet,
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.
Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.
But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.”
Some of the most effecting, and so powerful, literature about war uses imagery that draws upon the natural world. The contrast between beauty, tranquillity and nostalgia, and the man made ugliness, pandemonium and pain of war is obvious.
The excerpt above, taken from Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933), considers whether she can once again take pleasure from the unceasing cycle of nature, and concludes that there will still always be the memory of what she has lost. Vera Brittain lost both her brother and her fiancé during the conflict.
Red poppies grow again on the battlefields. the natural world endures along with those left behind. In the aftermath of the First World War, a number of communities were moved to plant trees as living memorials to those who had died. As a symbol of longevity, continuity and regeneration, the trees would grow strong and tall for a hundred years in the place of the lost men.
A number of these memorial trees grew from acorns and chestnuts translocated from Verdun in north eastern France, having survived the devastation of the 10 month battle there in 1916*. Tree seeds offered the comforting idea of rebirth out of the ground full of the dead, a living link with a foreign land.
In the North York Moors, a lady called Kate Smailes of Goathland village had 12 English oak trees planted in 1922 to commemorate 12 men with connections to Goathland who had died as a result of the Great War. Her own son George had been killed during the Battle of the Somme and had no known grave. Mrs Smailes chose a location for the trees along the old incline railway line, where she could see them every day on her walk. The memories and memorials were honoured and valued, not forgotten even if that were possible for those left behind.
The 12 men of Goathland are…
Godfrey Bousfield Harrison, Private, Yorkshire Regiment – died 29 September, 1915, aged 38 – buried Alexandria (Chatby) Military and War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt.
John Ward, Private, Yorkshire Regiment – died 30 April 1916, aged 20 – remembered at La Neuville Communal Cemetery, Corbie, France.
Edward (or Edwin) Pennock, Private, Yorkshire Regiment – died 29 September 1916, aged ? – buried AIF Burial Ground, Fleurs, France.
George Smailes, Second Lieutenant, Prince of Wales’ own West Yorkshire Regiment – died 22 October 1916, aged 22 – remembered on the Thiepval Memorial, Amiens, France.
Thomas Readman – Lengthman, North-Eastern Temporary Special Construction Unit, Civilian Railway Companies – died 2 April 1917, aged 40 – buried Hazebrouck Communal Cemetery, France. Thomas Readman was one of a number of men from the Goathland area working for the Civilian Railway Companies in France to lay single railway tracks to enable better transportation of armaments and supplies which was vital for the war effort.
Frederick Cockerill, Private, Yorkshire Regiment – died 14 May 1917, aged 23 – remembered on the Arras Memorial, Pas de Calais, France.
Arthur Rymer, Private, Yorkshire Regiment – died 9 October 1917, aged 20 – remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial, Belgium.
Robert Sleightholm, Apprentice, SS Dunrobin (cargo ship) – died 24 November 1917, aged 18 – remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial, London
Edwin Widdowson – Corporal, King’s Royal Rifle Corps – invalided out of the Army in 1917 – died 25 January 1918, aged 39.
John Yeoman Light, Lance Corporal, Royal Engineers – died 14 April 1918, aged 31 – remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial, Belgium.
George Pybus, Private, Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment – died 29 September 1918, aged 18 – buried Vieille-Chapelle New Military Cemetery, Lacouture, France.
Sidney Whiteley, Private, Yorkshire Regiment – died 11 November 1919, aged 22 – buried St Mary’s, Birdsall, Malton. (Wilfred W Whiteley?)
The men’s graves were in a foreign field, or they had no grave at all. Back in their damaged community of family, friends and neighbours they were commemorated on the stone War Memorial which stands on the village green and a marble tablet in St Mary’s Church, and memorialised by the 12 trees.
Now, 100 years later, a community project is underway led by the Goathland Community Hub & Sports Pavilion with support through the National Lottery and the North York Moors National Park Trust. The project will plant 12 new oak saplings close to the surviving original trees to ensure the memorial remains as the older trees naturally die. The young trees will be planted by the children of Goathland Primary School, helping to connect a new generation with past generations and with their place in history.
*The Woodland Trust is keen to trace and record as many of these Verdun memorial trees as possible.