The First World War – two great-uncles remembered
I have always known that two great-uncles of mine, my grandmother’s brothers died in
battle in the First World War. I remember my father telling the story of how their mother
(his grandmother) would stand with pride before the local war memorial on
Remembrance Sunday, tears streaming.
My sister found out what she could about them some years ago: the battalions, the
embarkations, dates of battle and death. It is only in this year of commemoration and
collective memory that I have paid them the attention they deserve and this piece is the
Private John Edward Ribbons was the older brother. He joined the 15
Regiment (Prince of Wales’ Own Civil Service Rifles). He died of wounds at Ypres on 24
December 1916, aged 22. He is buried in Woods Cemetery which lies close to the front
line near West-Vlaanderen in Belgium. His grave is near the enclosure wall from where
there are extensive views over the battlefield. The cemetery was begun by the 1
Dorsets and the 1
East Surreys in April 1915 and was in use until September 1917.
With the front line just beyond the woods, it would have been a hectic and forlorn place
in mid-winter 1916; criss-crossed by ambulances, stretcher bearers and orderlies. There
would only have been time for perfunctory burials while the line held.
Far, far from Ypres I long to be
Where German snipers can't get at me.
Damp is my dugout, cold are my feet
Waiting for whiz-bangs to send me to sleep. (1)
My sister revisited his grave in April 2014 to lay a commemorative cross. Now
maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it is a place of order, dignity
and peaceful commemoration.
Private Frederick Charles Ribbons was the younger brother. He enlisted in the 6
Battalion, The Buffs (East Kent Regiment) and was killed at the Battle of Loos on the 13
October 1915, aged 19. He is among the 20,610 soldiers who were killed during and
after the battle who have no known grave. He is remembered on the Loos memorial
which stands in Pas de Calais, France.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now... (2)
I know no more about them but have imagined their experiences and pitied their
suffering by tapping into the collective memory held in the testaments and documents of
war that have come down to us.
Their names are familiar to me, family names; my father, an uncle and cousin are
named after them. Their photographs are intriguing, two sturdy young men peer out at
me rough hewn, sepia brown, rumpled and mud booted. The style is distinctly different
from the fine quality photographs of the officer class with the more polished look. These
are ‘tommies’ through and through.
It is only during this year that the First World War, the details of which seemed very
familiar to me from history exams and television documentaries, has stopped being
remote and become more raw. I have taken the time to think about my family
connection to this global catastrophe and imagine the short lives of these two young