Lieut William Rawlinson
Posted by Richard Rawlinson
We like round-figure anniversaries. They give us something to look back on to look forward to. Next July, the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I (28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918), expect the media to be awash with coverage, and our streets, churches and other buildings to be filled with people commemorating in various ways from memorial services to peace marches (perhaps the latter will wait for the centenary of the Armistice in 2018).
Influences may also be seen in the arts and design, and general attitudes to death in that the anniversary will stimulate contemplation about ancestors who died—heroically, horrifically—and what their sacrifice means to us a century later. It could perhaps boost genealogy as a pastime, as people gen up on family trees, and perhaps pay respects at previously forgotten graves of relatives killed in battle.
If I make any pilgrimage it will be to Cumbria, from where my family hails. A relative, William Rawlinson, was lost in action. My father has found his name among the thousands commemorated on the Menin Gate during a visit to Ypres, but there’s also a commemorative window at his local church in Cumbria.
The reason I’m jumping a year ahead of the centenary is because I’m pre-occupied with the pre-war years, and specifically how the war’s aftermath affected religious faith. There was a seismic shift in attitudes to class, religion and much more. Although before great advances such as women’s suffrage and the welfare state, there was a degree of social innocence before the two World Wars, and the unsurpassed evils of Communism and Nazism.
There had been awful conflicts before, of course. William’s grandfather and uncle had served in the Crimean and Boer wars respectively, but these didn’t change everything in the way that was to follow.
After school and military training at Sandhurst, young William joined his infantry regiment in South Africa in 1910. It sounds like he had a cushy time: he was a keen motorist, a relative novelty at the time, and spent his leave hunting big game, fortunately a relative novelty today.
This world was rocked by the call to arms. His Cumbria parish magazine published this letter in 1915 from a Sergeant Parsons: ‘Lieutenant William Rawlinson was killed about 5pm on 14th March, at St. Eloi, and I was with him at the time. Our trenches had been blown up and the survivors retired into a support trench, all the time being subject to heavy fire.
‘Lieut. Rawlinson obtained some hand grenades in this trench, and stood up on the parapet throwing these with one hand and firing his revolver with the other. It was then that he was shot in the head. I examined him to make sure he was dead and then we had to continue our retirement. We would have brought his body in had it been possible, but we were under heavy fire and we had to cross a trench six feet wide which was full of water. So far as I know the body has not been brought in since…’
Just as time is measured by the hours of a clock face or the months of the calendar, so anniversaries bring order to the passing years, both our own lives and those who went before. But time creates constant anniversaries: this sunny July day may be just 99 years before the outbreak of war, but it’s 100 years since our forebears were living in blissful ignorance of the devastation looming ahead.
Let’s hope future generations don’t have to say the same about us as we take for granted our comfortable existence today.