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Brian Pohanka
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Visit to the Western Front
Part 7: The Fallen Soldier

By Brian Pohanka - October 27, 1999

This brief sketch was originally posted at a Civil War discussion group site and is reprinted here with the author's permission.

One 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:

"I 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."

red poppy by DLO

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