The Saddest Bit of All

I had to go carefully through all the papers and other belongings that had been taken off the bodies. I think that was about the saddest task ; certainly it was the hardest thing I did in the Dardanelles. I seemed to be taking a beastly liberty with the dead, and at the same time with their living kindred too.

Writing home to the relatives you did not know was trying work. It was impossible to say something fresh and different to each, and it was loathsome to repeat the same forms of regret and appreciation until they became stereotyped, and to you, at least, appeared cold and artificial. The men had all done so splendidly. And there was so little to say. There was nothing worth saying that could be said. ‘The War Office regrets’ is formal and perfunctory, Heaven knows, but I rather think it is the kindest of all.

But I at least found even harder than writing to the men’s people the scrutinising and handling of their poor little belongings. They had treasured the oddest things often, and very often the most commonplace. And the odder the thing the dead man cherished, or the more commonplace, the more uncomfortable I felt, the more intensely guilty of desecration. The contents of some of their pockets were enough to make a fellow-corpse laugh, and again and again they were very nearly enough to make one living fellow- Scot weep.

The man we had thought the biggest blackguard and the most hardened in the regiment had carried a baby’s curl folded away in a tattered bit of silver paper. A private I had put down as ignorant and common, judging him I scarcely know from what – for I do not remember having heard him speak – had on him an unfinished letter of his own. It was especially well written, Greek e’s, scrupulous punctuation, and its diction was almost distinguished. There were love-letters that had come from Scotland, and two that would go there unfinished. An old-fashioned prayer, written out in a cramped, ignorant hand, was signed ‘Mother’, and wrapped about three battered ‘fags’. A child’s first letter to ‘Daddy’ printed, crooked, ill-spelt, looked as if it had been carried for years. Scraps of newspapers – one containing a poem, one the report of a prize-fight – a knot of blue ribbon, a small magnifying- glass, a pack of cards, a mouth – organ (of course), three exquisite butterflies carefully pressed in an old pocket- book, a woman’s ring, a snow-white curl, a lace handkerchief, a paper of peppermints, and a score of still stranger things, which I will not catalogue lest any might by odd chance be recognised, and give pain these were some of the mementoes I had to sort, and, if possible, send back to the owner’s home. Almost every pocket had a photograph ; most of them had several. In a dozen pockets I found the pictured face of an old woman, a severe, indomitable old woman – if her picture reported her aright – but with tender eyes; unmistakably Scots, unmistakably Mother.

‘Knit two and purl one

Stir the fire and knit again.

And, oh, my son, my only son,

I think of you in wind and rain,

In rain and wind, ‘neath fire and shell,

Going along the road to hell

On earth, in wind and rain.

My little son, my only son,

Knit two and purl one

Stir the fire and knit again’.

It was desperate work. It choked me, and I don ‘t mind who knows it. But one thing it established in my mind for all time Tommy ‘has his feelings’. 

There were pictures of sweethearts (they said so on the back), pictures of wives, and pictures of kiddies dressed in their best.But what touched me most, and gave me a new and nobler view of Tommy, were the pictures of ‘Mother’.

But my saddest find of all was a pocket in which there was – nothing. Had he livedquite alone? Had no one cared? Had he not even a memory to treasure in some poor tangible token? Had he been all his life as he died – quite, quite alone?

I found a small dictionary in one man’s tunic, Sartor Resartus in another, in a third a Murray’s time-table. Several had carried a Testament, and two of the Roman Catholics had their beads.

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