Ninety-two years ago last Thursday, on November 4th 1918, Private Edward Connelly of the 10th Battalion Queen’s West Surrey Regiment was killed in Flanders. He was barely nineteen years old. A week after his death the Armistice was signed and the ‘war to end all wars’ was over.
Edward Connelly was my grand-uncle; my grandfather’s brother. We don’t know much about him; until a year or so ago we hadn’t even known he’d existed. My grandfather had joined up underage and for the rest of his life never spoke about what he’d seen and never mentioned the elder brother who never came home. My father and his generation grew up completely unaware of Edward Connelly.
I don’t know when or where it was taken but this picture is part of a group shot and is of Edward Connelly. He looks awkward. His uniform doesn’t sit right. His collar is a bit askew. The way he’s sitting isn’t natural, as if he’s trying to affect something, as if he’s thinking this is how I’m supposed to sit, isn’t it? He’s trying to look confident and relaxed but instead looks ill-at-ease; it’s a photograph of a boy trying to look grown up. Look at his face: he isn’t a soldier, he’s just a boy.
Edward Connelly wasn’t a hero. ‘Hero’ is a word so crassly overused these days it’s becoming meaningless. Edward Connelly won no medals beyond the basic campaign ones issued to every soldier so it seems he performed no particular acts of heroism. He was called up, had some cursory basic training, was shipped over to Flanders and died, terrified and far from home in the cold November mud at the arse end of a dreadful war. It was a war already won bar the formalities: his death was utterly pointless, it achieved nothing, affected nothing.
Edward Connelly was never mentioned in dispatches, has no place in the indexes of accounts of the Great War and was even inadvertently wiped from the history of his own family for nearly a century. He left nothing behind other than the picture above – even his service record was one of those destroyed by fire during the Blitz. Today he lies alone and unvisited among strangers in an obscure Belgian war cemetery.
On this Armistice Day, I try to picture my great-grandmother standing at her door ninety-two years ago today listening to the church bells pealing across London, looking at the bunting going up, seeing the smiles of neighbours and friends, hearing the laughter of her other children and thinking, it’s over, thank God, he’s coming home. She’d lost her brother at Verdun two years earlier, but Edward, her boy, her firstborn, he was coming home.
There was a telegram on the way. It may even have arrived that day as flags were being hung from windows and the carillons in their bell towers still chimed victory and peace.
Edward Connelly was just an ordinary kid from London with hopes, dreams, plans and ambitions. His death wasn’t a sacrifice, wasn’t glorious and wasn’t heroic. It was a waste. A dreadful, unfair, heart-shattering waste.
Because he wasn’t a soldier. He was just a boy.