Front Lines

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There were four of us gathered at Mr Morgan’s grave, one icy morning in January 1978. I held my newborn son close, as the sleet-laden wind sliced across the vast west London cemetery. The brief ceremony ended, we turned to leave. The matron of Mr Morgan’s nursing-home remarked that no next-of-kin had been found, and I asked her what would happen to his things. She gave me a sharp look, saying there was nothing but a filthy old envelope he had seemed to cherish: I could have it, if I wanted.

In fact it was all I wanted. A neighbour of ours, Mr Morgan had become a firm friend, and the document in that envelope was the source of his greatest pride. I knew it by heart. Delivered towards the end of May 1915, it is addressed to his parents in Pontypridd. It informs them that their son William, of the Welch Regiment, had died at L’Epinette on 9 May 1915. Included with this is a neatly typed note: ‘The King commands me to assure you of the true sympathy of His Majesty and The Queen in your sorrow.’ The big, bold, black signature reads ‘Kitchener’. Of course it wasn’t true.

It is, however, a printed record of (a part of) Mr Morgan’s service in the trenches. A wily young Welsh lad, he’d joined up in 1914 as a private soldier, which position he managed, on and off, to retain throughout the hostilities. Raymond Asquith, roughly fifteen years his senior, joined later, moving straight into the officer class: he left a record of extraordinary cool courage, and some powerfully moving letters, edited and selected by his grandson. Raymond’s father, born 26 years earlier still in 1878, had become Prime Minister by the time the Morgan parents received the dreaded telegram. His own, published letters are the most surprising of the war.

When the telegram boy knocked at the Morgans’ door, their son William was in fact hiding upstairs. After enduring hours of incessant shelling during the Battle of Aubers Ridge, he had regained consciousness in a dar

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About the contributor

Sue Gaisford began reviewing books for The Economist about the time of Mr Morgan’s death, and has since written for many other publications. She currently reviews for the Financial Times and is on the judging panel for the annual Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award.

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