to the Western Front
Part 7: The Fallen Soldier
Brian Pohanka - October 27, 1999
brief sketch was originally posted at a Civil War discussion
group site and is reprinted here with the author's permission.
of the themes of our visit to the Western Front was the
periodic rendering of homage to a fallen soldier, at the
place where he died, or the monument bearing his name,
or his grave. Such was the case with 2nd Lieutenant David
Cuthbert Thomas of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. "Tommy"
was not an author, he wrote no great poetry, did not live
to write his memoirs. But he was one whose loss the great
War poets Siegfried
Sassoon and Robert Graves -- fellow officers in the
battalion -- felt deeply. Both men wrote of Thomas in
their poetry and their memoirs. From a middle class Welsh
family, a Sandhurst graduate, 20 years old and perenially
smiling (as he is in the photo I had in my album of reference
material), Thomas was one of those all-round "good
chaps." In his very fine War Memoir/Autobiography
Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves described Thomas
as "Simple, gentle, fond of reading"; he played
cricket, he helped show his fellow non-Sandhurst comrades
the ins and outs of military manuals and whatnot, he was
engaged to a girl back home.
On the evening of March 18, 1916, Lt. Thomas was sent
out with a wiring party -- that is to check the British
barbed wire defenses, repair anything that was damaged,
see if the Germans had been trying to cut a way through,
and so on. All the work was done at night. The men slept,
or tried to sleep during the day. At night they could
go out into No-Man's Land on patrol, or on working details;
at night the food could be brought up. Night was a busy
time, and a dangerous time, as the Germans were also busy
in the dark.
If a flare went up the men would freeze in place. Instinct
was to duck, or dodge, or drop prone. But the slightest
movement would draw fire, sometimes from expert snipers,
sometimes from a machine gun strafe, or shells. Sometimes
the enemy would simply fire at noise, or just into the
darkness hoping to hit someone. Such was the case that
night when Lt. Thomas was struck in the throat.
He was well enough to make it back to an aide station
unassisted, and all seemed well -- he'd have a "Blighty"
-- that is a wound that would send him back to England.
But all of a sudden the wound began to hemmorhage, and
in a few seconds "Tommy" was dead. "I felt
David's death worse than any other since I had been in
France," Graves recalled, "but it did not anger
me as it did Siegfried [Sassoon]...every evening now he
went out on patrol looking for Germans to kill. I just
felt empty and lost."
Sassoon, whose increasingly embittered and satirical war
poetry reflected his disenchantment with the War, and
British War Aims, became known as "Mad Jack"
for his reckless trench raids, often conducted on his
own. In response to Lt. Thomas' death, Sassoon wrote some
lines that I read at the grave, there at the edge of a
wood and the fields where potatoes had recently been harvested
and piled in heaps six feet high:
thought of him, and knew that he was dead;
I thought of his dark hour, and laughter killed,
And the shroud hiding his dear, happy head --
And blood that heedless enemies have spilled --
His blood: I thought of rivers flowing red,
And crimson hands that laid him in his bed."
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