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Billy Morris - "I died smiling as I lived." WW1 Remembrance Sunday

Billy Morris -

Sunday 11 November 2012

'Send my rugger boots and jersey, and my tennis shoes." The words leapt out at me from Billy Morris's letter, sent from a military cadet training camp in Surrey in 1916, at the height of World War One. It was as if they were all off on one great adventure and party.

I had always been told that no one knew how or where my father's much older brother, Billy Morris, had died, only that he had enlisted as an ordinary soldier in the British army, much to his father's fury. Indeed, his father never actually spoke to him again. However, last year a bundle of some 30 letters was passed to me which revealed a correspondence between Billy and his sister, May Rose, who, in true jolly hockey-sticks terminology of the day, he called a "flapper", addressing her affectionately all the time as "My Dearest Miggles". The letters were given to me by May Rose's son, my cousin and godfather, Cecil Johnston.

I found the letters absolutely fascinating, giving as they did, an extraordinary insight to life back then. They were also very emotional, and difficult to read at times, all the more so because I knew the fatal outcome of Billy's wartime adventures. Included in the correspondence was his last, tragic, black-bordered letter to his mother, followed by letters written by the soldier who marked his grave with a headboard.

The Morris family was a well-to-do merchant family from Kilkenny. Billy was the eldest son, educated at Clongowes Wood, always spoken of in a glowing fashion, and it was apparent that much was expected from this golden boy. My father, Anselm, was the second youngest of the family of six, and didn't marry until he was nearly 50, which explains why I have an uncle -- Billy -- from a bygone era.

With World War One in full flight, and Ireland on the brink of enormous change, in Kilkenny there still existed the vestiges of another world of parties and dances, hunting, shooting and fishing, involving prominent local families including the Smithwicks and the Duggans.

Billy had been the very young Master of Kilkenny Hunt and a steeplechase rider, and my grandfather owned the Lacken Mills on the River Nore and lived in Lacken House, which the family always referred to as Hartlands, the dower house of the Earls of Montmorency, on the Dublin Road.

Billy was 23 and had been in the City of London honing his financial skills when, along with some friends and colleagues, he enlisted in the Honourable Artillery Company, an elite regiment comprised solely of young men from the City of London. The HAC is the oldest regiment in the British army and the Queen is its Captain-General. Incorporated in 1537, its soldiers perform ceremonial duties in the City of London, such as firing royal salutes at the Tower of London, and providing guards of honour for visiting heads of state, and for the royal family.

The internet is a wonderful thing. Once I located Billy's regiment and serial numbers in the letters, I discovered very quickly that he was buried in a little cemetery at Varennes, 90 miles north of Paris, having been killed near Grandcourt in the Somme region. I contacted the British War Graves Commission and found the War Graves Photographic Project, who were absolutely fantastic, even sending a volunteer to find and take a picture of his grave. All of this evoked in me an overwhelming urge to visit Varennes, as I felt I got to know this young man so well through his writings -- through the extraordinarily simple, mundane things like his love of chocolate, of dances, bullseye sweets, wanting his socks darned, the novels he was reading. He told of having to paint whale oil on his feet when snow was up around their bunks, and he had a humourous take on French village life. He died aged 24 on February 8, 1917, as he said in his final letter, with a smile on his face as he always had in life.

The letters start in 1916 when Billy was training at Richmond Park Camp at Roehampton. He talks at various stages about being up at 5.30am for training and how his group was the fittest and fastest by far, and how General French had visited. He bemoans the fact that "Kathleen" had got married:"because we could have had such a ripping time here. She used to live up the river at a sweet little spot called Staines, and we could punt up there and back quite easily and quite cheaply. However, it's rather silly arranging what you might have done if someone else hadn't done something else."

He always seemed to be looking for money -- does anything ever change?! He asked if any of the family at home knew how to knit socks, or did the girls have stockings that could be cut off at the knees, as he thought they might be useful later in the year, saying at the same time that he wished he had some money to buy sheet music of some of the latest songs, to send them.

"I'm really quite lonely although we're all together. Nobody here believes I ever stop laughing, and there is nothing as sickening as being taken as a huge joke when you feel damn rotten."

The soldiers were, at this point, very highly trained and anxious to be moved on, which they were, to the Tower of London, prior to embarking for France. Billy also writes rather amusingly about knowing chaps from the King Edward Horse Regiment who were "all jolly fine chaps but rotten soldiers. They lounge around most awfully and are absolutely without discipline". Of course they were "it" with the girls.

He asks Miggles what the prospects were for the social season, and asks her to thank Jack Smithwick and Peter Duggan for writing, and wishes his mother and family could come over "as everyone has their sisters and mother in to Camp".

"Last Saturday I was going into a tube station in Piccadilly Circus," he writes, "and bumped into Tessie Davis. It took my breath away. I didn't know whether to ask her to tea or something, but she was going to Richmond to meet a girl called Richardson, who was at a dance of theirs once."

He continues: "The funniest part was that down at Forest Gate, after 12 Mass the next day, we passed her again but she didn't recognise me in khaki! I look too much like a rowdy militia man, and everyone says I look as if I'd never left the trenches since the war started. Next Saturday, I have an invitation to Theatre and a trip thro' Soho and the Italian Quarter, which is really very, very interesting.

"So you see, life is not too bad. But then I can't always be a beggar, and there are a good many invitations I have to refuse on this score. So I get my lean days, and my fat days, and them all in the most jaunty and sporting fashion as only a real Tommy can."

May Rose always seemed to oblige, with postal orders being dispatched to keep him in funds, as he assured her she was "a brick" and he didn't make the mistake "a good many men make in thinking that everybody else's sister is nicer than their own".

He talks about the practicality of him and his friend Michael taking commissions offered. They didn't want to do it for three reasons: it would have meant another four months in cadet school; the bank would only pay half salary; and they loved the life of "ordinary Tommies". In a later letter from France, he refers to the officers being picked off by high velocity rifles with telescopic lenses.

"There's one thing about the HAC. They think we are all millionaires," he reported, bemoaning the fact he had been sent on a Lewis Gun Course to the Grenadier Guards at Chelsea but had to board himself, and was only given an allowance of 7/11d, and consequently he was broke.

In November 1916, he writes that they are setting off for France, and that they 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. Give tons of love to Mum, Ancy and Eddie, and don't tell poor Paw anything at all. Cheery oh! Everyone!"

The letters continued from "somewhere in France". The first gave an account of standing around at the docks for hours, and that it was going to take three days to do a journey of five miles. As he wrote, he was spending two days in a very luxurious compartment in a Pullman coach instead of the expected cattle trucks! It gave him time to list at length the most extraordinary things they had to carry -- gas masks, helmets, mug, a knife and fork, 120 rounds of ammunition, clothing, a cardigan, a cape, a razor, a roll of lint, a tube of iodine, a bootbrush, two army biscuits, two tins of bully beef, four bars of chocolate. The list went on and on, and you wondered how they actually stood up.

The efficiency of the postal service amazed me because there seemed to be a never-ending round of parcels going back and forth, first to London, and then, as Billy progressed through the north of France, right to the trenches of the Somme. They were filled with chocolates, laundry, socks for darning, 7d novels for light reading as "nothing too serious was required in the circumstances!!"

"Oh I do like Golden Syrup," he proclaims, "I mixed it in my porridge last night and it tasted like Heaven-sent nectar."

Meanwhile, at home, his younger brothers were writing to him about tobogganing in Kilkenny, and telling him that the man with the gold uniform and mace had died. He asked whether that was the theatre man or the Mayor! He encouraged them to study, and said they were replacing their big brother at home.

He writes 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. It could be charming if they all took example from my landlord and his spouse. The old lady has one of those inquisitive kind of noses that's always showing around the corner to see if we're throwing water in the places not assigned thereto. There's a sister of some 50 summers who does all the outdoor work in the henhouse. Monsieur goes away to the Farm!"

The air of camaraderie between these young men was extraordinarily like that in the movies, or the TV show Band of Brothers. 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". Although the Sergeant, he assured, "was an awfully nice chap". 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."

By December 7, 1916, they were being rested as a reward for their labours on a dangerous mission on which they had stormed a target and been very successful. It had apparently been reported in the Daily Mirror, which reported 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, the more he liked it, saying, following an encouraging letter from Miggles, that he was "happier in his rotten old barn than any king that ever reigned". On December 14 he wrote of sitting in a little village cafe, "where it is very very amusing to watch the Tommies carry on a really ardent flirtation with a certain wench by the name Suzette, each speaking his or her own tongue, but that seems to be an excellent arrangement. No difficulty seems to exist at all".

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 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 news of home and letters, and it all still sounded like an adventure.

"Congratulations old cock," he said, "on having such a good time at the dance. You deserve it indeed. I'm quite as pleased, more so in fact than if I had been there myself. 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. Michael is messing about having his tea an hour after dinner and I have a jar, head foremost in the ground, to stick my candle on. Tell me more about the dance, or send me a paper.

"You never told me about Peter McCreery's proposed marriage. I thought women were great gossipers but men (in the form of Jack Smithwick) leave them cold.

"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 the 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 for I must leave thee.

"P.S. We've shifted from where we were rather suddenly just after I had finished this and your parcel. You can have the distinction of saying it 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 was ominously black bordered, accompanied by a 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 the February 7, 1917, and being one of the first to reach the objective, Billy received a bomb wound penetrating his stomach, and died at the field hospital. He was buried at the British military cemetery at Varennes, near Amiens, in the Somme area. For some time after, a correspondence then existed between his sister, Miggles, and the English soldier who had marked Billy's grave with a board.

Billy, a young man -- a year older, when he died, than my eldest son -- who was but a name to me up to last year, through his writings has come alive, and imprinted himself in my head and my heart.

It is 90 years this November since the armistice with Germany was signed, and hostilities ended in World War One -- a very long time ago, yet Billy Morris's letters seem as though they were written yesterday. What I find very difficult is that no one from the family ever stood by this colourful, warm, young man's grave in more than 90 years. I want to go and touch his gravestone and tell him we still care.

- Lucinda O'Sullivan