The Great Promise
On a balmy North Carolina spring day of 2009, I sat at my kitchen table, swamped by the conglomeration of memorabilia amassed by my deceased paternal grandparents. The tattered box of paper relics had been transferred to me via my older sister, having been previously stored away and forgotten in various family closets for more than fifty years.
My objective was to find my grandfather’s World War One journal. Among the contents of the box were an English marriage license, a couple of cookbooks, a boyhood bible, newspaper clippings, and several military documents. Eventually, I uncovered a small, brown ledger; printed on the front cover was “Army Book 152 Correspondence Book (Field Service)”.
I gently lifted the journal from the box and held it in my hands. For a brief time I just stared at it, reveling in the moment. I’ll never forget the emotional sequence that followed. At first I was overcome by an exhilaration comparable to one might expect when uncovering a treasure chest or embarking upon an adventurous journey. This elation became intermingled with awe for the piece of history I was holding. However, these sentiments were soon overshadowed by the riveting realization that I was holding my GRANDFATHER’S journal; a journal written astutely in his own fluent, cursive hand, almost one-hundred years ago. The pages were yellowed and the penciled script faded (figure 1). Even so, I was still able to follow a narrative that proved to be both insightful and compelling.
Thoroughly convinced of the value of this documentation, I aspired to transcribe the journal for other members of my family to enjoy, as well as to concretely preserve its contents for generations to follow. Countless hours were devoted to this undertaking — deciphering the colloquial and military language of a British soldier written a century earlier.
Progressing through the journal, I was able to transcribe my grand- father’s experiences through late spring of 1915, following the second battle of Ypres. Knowing that the war continued through 1918, I was curious as to the reason why the entries suddenly ended. What changes in his military service might have taken place? How did he spend the remainder of the war? So, once again, I dove into the contents of our family carton searching for answers.
I was able to discover through other saved documents that, due to his specific skills and expertise, Frederick George Coxen had been as- signed to other areas of responsibility for the duration of the war. None of this information had been revealed to me, or to my siblings, prior to this point.
By unraveling the poignantly historical threads of my grandfather’s war years through the examination of his personal relics, I was able to sculpt together a more complete replica of the remarkably complex man he was.
I could not have anticipated that further excavation into the box contents would have had such a dramatic effect on the next few years of my life. Tucked away in the depths of all the memorabilia was a more recent correspondence of my grandfather’s, typed on onion skin paper in 1945. The letter was addressed to no particular person or group; it just contained a title –
“I Had A Dream The Other Night”
It was one of those hazy, disjointed dreams that cause you on awakening to try to connect it in sequence, and leave you greatly perturbed in mind - yes, and in spirit.
It seems that I was sitting at a table - it might have been after a good dinner, for I felt quite satisfied with everything, and very complacent.
I leaned back in my chair, picked up a glass from the table, and was enjoying the odor of its contents - most likely an after-dinner brandy.
I seemed to hear a noise and looked up, and there stood three of my old buddies, “Pudgie” Taylor, Bobbie Glue, and George Bramwell. I seemed to become elated with a supreme sense of happiness, just as if I was suddenly transported into a kind of world hitherto unknown to me.
It appeared that we greeted each other with an enthusiasm beyond what we humans experience, and then it seemed that we all became rigid as Pudgie filled up glasses for each one of us.
We apparently stood a long time in silence, and then Pudgie spoke, just one of his utterances that I had heard so many times, “Here’s to you, Old China” (in modern parlance:“Here’s to you, old pal”). “May we all do the job together.”
Then everything grew hazy, as it does in dreams, and I woke up. In the few moments it took to collect my senses, I was at first excited, then let down, “I have been dreaming.” Memory took me over the years and thoughts drifted sadly.
Pudgie, Bobby, George, and I were old pals. A couple of days before the battle of Mons in August 1914, we promised each other that should one or more of us get back, we, or he, would call on the family of those who perished and explain how and when “it happened.”
Within a few weeks of that pledge George was killed beside me at the Marne, and died in my arms. Pudgie got his at Ypres, repairing a telephone wire. Bobby’s legs left his torso when I tried to pull him from our blown - in dugout, also at Ypres.
Since that enlightened dream the thought has been with me, “May we all do the job together.” Pudgie meant, in forming that pact just prior to when the shooting started, that we all GET BACK TOGETHER.
Well, we didn’t! Just one of the four did and that one failed to carry out the promise. For in the more than four years that the war continued, so much happened; time has gradually softened the memory, which is now one among so many.
Throughout the years I have had a great many dreams or mild nightmares fighting that war all over again, and have so often thought, “Was it worthwhile?” We positively know now, those of my generation who are left, together with the younger generation who are now engaged in completing the job more clearly how to see to it that it will be completed the RIGHT WAY this time.
I am wondering now, was that “visit” of my old buddies who have been lying in Flanders Fields for nearly thirty years, a reproach or a reminder? I don’t know, but it has certainly caused my criticism of myself to assert itself. Were they not telling me that the job has to be done together?
Were they not asking, “Are we all united in our cause?” Were they telling me to do all I could to help COMPLETE the job which they and millions of others died for? It is all too complex for me to answer, but I do know one thing, and that very definitely, I HAVE NOT DONE MY BEST! I have made no sacrifice that could, in the smallest measure, be compared with that of the boys who are now going through that hell that I know so well.
Sure, I have done and am doing war work, getting well paid for it too. Sure, I have given time to selling war bonds, and bought some too. But I have to admit that I often get sore at the way the war is being run, like all the damn dumb things that make it cost so much, at the cockeyed forms that I have to fill in, and the taxes I have to pay.
I get mad too when I read and hear of strikes, when my gas is running low. I criticize about everything, EXCEPT TO PROMOTE THE ALL IMPORTANT FACT THE BOYS (as we fondly call them) ARE GOING THROUGH HELL AND DYING FOR FIFTY BUCKS A MONTH.
Dying for fifty bucks a month, that’s what it amounts to, unless we of the home front do our part to back the fighting front, with every ounce of our individual strength, in dollars, work, and brains.
If we do not (even at the thought I would scream to high heaven), it will mean, as it did last time, veterans of war would be transformed into peddlers, aye, even beggars, yes, even worse, paupers, together with general chaos.
The question of “Why and for what did my old pals give their lives?” is still unanswered. May God grant that World War Two mold a different world than did World War One. We must see to it, or World War Three will develop. The irony of the thought of world war defined by numerals!
For a few days my dream sort of worried me. But I am grateful now, because it gave me reasons to do a little more thinking, the result of which gives me determination to try in every way to do a little more. Candidly, there is not much I can do in comparison to the sacrifice others are making, but I can and will work harder, count to ten before I start bellyaching, con- serve, and save (that word “save” is right up my alley) for I can really do that by BUYING WAR BONDS TO THE UTMOST.
From now on I am going to ask myself a question very often, the question being “What did I do today for the one who may die for me tonight?”The answer, “I bought an extra bond.”
Thanks for the visit, George, Bobby, and Pudgie; may you forever rest in peace, together with those who are joining you now
By the Grace of God, and our efforts, perhaps we can make sure that my grandsons will not have to make the sacrifice you, and thousands who are now joining you, were called upon to make.
It took a while to digest the content of the letter and even longer to comprehend its full meaning. I started to imagine at what point in time these young men entered into their pact. The setting could have been on a train enroute to the Belgian frontier, or during the long march to their first engagement in Mons. Perhaps it was the trepidation from hearing the first barrage of heavy artillery prior to battle that drove the moment. Whenever or wherever it took place, these chums felt compelled to formulate a promise to each other and or a vow to notify one another’s family in the event that he, or they, became a fatality of war. No one will know the emotional rationale behind the promise made that day; nevertheless, the letter does reveal that, as the lone survivor, my grandfather neglected to honor their covenant.
This letter testifies to the fact that Frederick G. Coxen, although very grateful for surviving the war, remained haunted by that fervent agreement made among friends - one devised by naïve, untested warriors, who could never have imagined the agonizing inferno they were about to face. My grandfather’s dream epitomized the residual guilt he carried all those years, surmising that he had disappointed his chums.
Upon reviewing this revealing personal confession, I immediately became determined to fulfill my grandfather’s promise, to locate and inform the descendants of those fallen soldiers.
Having now become acquainted with his war exploits, I can only imagine the terror and hardship my grandfather faced each day. By sharing his journal with you, along with the aspects of my search for these three families, you may come to understand the compelling reasons for committing myself to this quest, as well as to ascertain the likely motives behind leaving his promise unfulfilled.