Robert Henson, the central character in J.M. Cobley’s A Hundred Years to Arras is not a fictional creation. He lived and breathed, but was just one of the estimated forty five thousand men to perish during the 1917 battle. He died of wounds, and is buried in Hervin Farm British Cemetery, St Laurent Blangy, on the outskirts of Arras. The Western Times reported his death on Wednesday 9th May 1917.
There is no joy in this sad tale, but at least Robert Henson did not leave a widow – or children – back in Somerset. As Cobley’s book relates, Robert’s death plunged his father deeper into a spiral of drink and depression, and all his mother was left with was the War Gratuity – a paltry one pound eight shillings and fourpence, some mass produced medals, and what was sarcastically termed the “Dead Man’s Penny”, below. (This is not Robert’s actual Memorial Plaque, but an artist’s impression)
Robert’s regiment, The Somerset Light Infantry, has a distinguished history. It was founded in 1685 as part of King James II’s response to the Monmouth Rebellion. Under various titles it fought in every major conflict including the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Afghan Wars and the Boer War until it was finally merged with other regiments to become The Light Infantry in 1968.
I am old enough to remember when living veterans of The Great War were numbered in their tens of thousands, and I grew up in a country still mourning its WW2 dead, but there was – and always will be – something different about the 1914-1919 war. Poet Vernon Scannell expressed this perfectly: (the full poem is here)
Whenever the November sky
Quivers with a bugle’s hoarse, sweet cry,
The reason darkens; in its evening gleam
Crosses and flares, tormented wire, grey earth
Splattered with crimson flowers,
And I remember,
Not the war I fought in
But the one called Great
Which ended in a sepia November
Four years before my birth.
Robert Henson’s name lives on. Not just in the poignant words of a modern novel, or carved on a headstone in a lonely French cemetery, but much closer to the place he called home, whose trees, streams, fields and cloudscapes shaped his upbringing. This simple plaque is on the wall of St John the Baptist church Skilgate.