You’ll never read this, but I want to tell you a story. It’s a story about you…
There’s a little three-year-old girl wearing bright pink pyjamas with hair like a bird’s nest. She’s actually your great-great-niece, and she’s just woken up. Lately, one of her favourite things to do is trudge sleepy-eyed into the spare bedroom, pull out old photograph albums of her father and me, and study them while sitting on a wooden box.
But, Jack, it’s not just any box: it’s the box you made more than 100 years ago.
The one you engraved ‘J.E.Rodgers, Bowen’ into the wood in beautiful cursive. The one you made while you were still a labourer. The one you made before you went to war. The one you made before you had to watch your mates die around you.
The one you made before your mother’s heart was broken, which happened as soon as she learned you’d been killed in action on the Somme; shot while digging a cable trench at just 22 years old. (Remember all those lovely letters you wrote to her from the Front? She treasured them so much and, many years later, was buried with them. They were all she had left of you.)
It’s the one you made before you were buried at Villers-Bretonneux, Jack.
Did you know we visited you there? And when I say ‘we’, I mean me and my husband, who’s your great-nephew.
The war had been going for two years when you enrolled on 25 March 1916. You were only 20.
From the records, it appears you had a scar on the top of your head and one on your right instep. (What happened there? A bit of rough-play with your big brother? A fall off a horse?) You were only a little lad, too – 5ft 3in and 132 pounds. What was going through your head when you got on the boat? The adventure of a lifetime, no doubt.
Your great-nephew and I weren’t married when we went on our adventure to France. In fact, I’d won a trip and decided to take him with me. When we mapped out our plans, he asked if we could go to see you. You see, his grandfather was your brother who didn’t get to the war; saved by a ‘lucky’ bout of pneumonia that resulted in being discharged from training camp. But, as you imagine, my husband grew up listening to stories about you and your other brother (who survived the war but suffered from the effects of mustard gas and shell shock for the rest of his days), and wanted to be the first in the family to visit you.
Of course, I said yes.
We stayed in a quaint little town called Amiens, and made the journey to visit your final resting place through fields of red poppies. It was only then I truly understood the significance of the pretty flower.
In a land so calm and green, it’s hard to fathom how Villers-Bretonneux was a site where battles were fought in not one, but two, World Wars.
I know it’s not home soil, but – wow – what a breathtakingly beautiful spot to be buried, Jack. For a place that saw so much violence, now it holds only serenity, beauty and above all else, peace.
When we visited you in 2006, Villers-Bretonneux hadn’t yet become the popular ANZAC day destination it is today. It’s wonderful you have so many visitors coming to pay their respects and acknowledge the sacrifices of you and your kind.
Once we looked up your location (XX. A6) in the book, I left my husband to find you and spend some time at your grave. I wandered away, looking at the names of the other boys and men laid to rest around you, and walked up to the monument, which bears the scars of gunshot marks from World War II.
When I found him again, his eyes were wet. He had cried for you, Jack. It was the first time I’d known him to do it, and I’ve only seen it three times in a decade since – the death of his father, and the birth of his two daughters.
And do you know what else? He absolutely HATES having his photo taken, but here he is with you:
As I’m remembering that glorious and touching day, I’m starting to get teary…and it’s your darn box that started it!
What were you thinking when you made it? I’ll bet it wasn’t how one day, a little girl would find comfort sitting on its sturdy lid; her small fingers sub-consciously tracing the letters you carved all those years ago. (Sometimes I’ve even caught her using it as a mini-stage; watching herself in the mirror as she attempts plies and arabesques!)
Jack, I know you’ve been dead a long time now. You were killed on 27 July, 1918, less than five months before the war ended. Unfair is an understatement. But the thing is, you only TRULY die when no one’s left to remember you anymore. When no one knows your name. Or your face. Or your stories. Or about your box.
But we remember you, Jack. And we thank you.
Lest we forget.
John ‘Jack’ Etheridge Rodgers
26th BN Australian Infantry
September 1895 – 27 July 1918
Dearly loved son of S.A. Rodgers of Bowen
‘Not lost but gone before’
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