Sometimes you run across a piece of writing, or an artifact, that is completely unexpected, yet deeply touching. This morning, during my usual scan of my RSS newsfeed, was the curious headline “Cyril Harris. (1998/9-1918). Rifleman R/9237 9th Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps.” Not the usual thing that appears on my radar.
After clearing out some work, I looked it up. It’s an entry by John Harris, posted on the 85th anniversary of the death of his great-uncle Cyril, who died during the Great War. Here’s what made me take notice:
I now own the few remaining documents that mark his brief existence. I have scanned these documents and present them here as a way of preserving them and his memory.
The rest of the entry consists of those five documents: a letter from John Harris’ father with a short biography of Cyril; a newspaper article (with a grainy photograph that is “the only existing photo of Cyril”), a letter from the War Office; a photograph of his grave; and a commemorative scroll.
Each of the documents is striking in its own way; I was amazed that the War Office sent form letters to next of kin, of the “printed but fill in the blanks with pen” sort that historians of the period will recognize immediately. It even has a line reading, “If replying, please quote above No. 145220,” as if anyone would be content to speak of a relative’s death using a reference number.
But then again, given that the Great War was Europe’s first taste of industrialized killing, it does have its own logic.
At first, I thought that it must have been terrible to get a form letter announcing the death a relative. But a lot of people would have gotten them in those day. That fact might have made it a bit less strange.
Also notice that there’s a handwritten annotation, “Buried in Glageon Communal Cemetery, Grave No. 172 H.” It’s odd that the form doesn’t have a line for that.
The other thing that struck me is, this is all that’s left of Cyril Harris: aside perhaps from a couple entries in records in the Imperial War Museum, and grave 172 H, this is all the proof that Cyril Harris existed. Having worked in collections of personal papers that filled trailer trucks, and having written about people who probably weren’t the subject of public attention since their obituaries and may never be mentioned again (RAS assistant secretary William Wesley– there, one more mention), I find these small collections to be poignant and mysterious and compelling. They’re something; yet you can’t help but notice that there’s so much they don’t include; and in some cases, they end far earlier than they should.
When all is said and done, one of the strongest impulses all forms of personal writing– including blogging– is the desire to have something of you left when you’re gone, some proof that you once existed, and, to a few people anyway, that your life mattered.