When you move house — really move I mean: garage sale, auction, innumerable trips to the dump, massive book culling, the full catastrophe — you encounter, slowly and over the months of gradually diminishing disruption, two contradictory results. One is you find things that you hadn't seen for ages or scarcely knew you possessed, and the other is you lose things, sometimes, it would seem, forever.
Probably because Anzac Day was looming, I became aware a week or so ago that I had not seen anywhere a framed photograph of my grandfather, Alexander Murray.
He gazes out from an ornate, scrolled oval frame with a gentle slightly bemused look to him. The face is thin, boyish and overshadowed by the too large military cap. On either side of the portrait hang his medals on faded ribbon and beneath is a citation in which futility grapples with dignity:
He whom this scroll commemorates was numbered among those who, at the call of King and Country, left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger, and finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of self sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom. Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten.
Alex married 21-year-old Annie Carroll, a slim, dark, Irish immigrant, in Glasgow and they lived in Glasgow's grim slum, the Gorbals, where, in due course, their two sons and two daughters were born. Alex was planning to take his impoverished but close and happy family to Canada or Australia when, with bewildering urgency, he became 17051 Private Alexander Murray, Driver, Army Service Corps, and, after some training, went to France.
By the beginning of 1918, Alex was surviving but shattered in spirit. 'My dearest Ann,' he wrote:
... leave is still stopped, but when it starts I shall get away on leave, it is hard lines. My dearest Ann, if it is not too much trouble you might send me on a small parcel and when I do come home I shall give you as much money as I can. I wish this war was finished for I am fed up. My dear Ann, you and the children try to be as cheery as you can. I feel all buggered up but I shall just have to carry on the best way I can ...
We are not on the same front now, we are on another front and it is actually hell. I could tell you more but this letter might be opened ... I remain your ever loving husband, Alex.
Who knows what ambiguous solace Annie could derive from Alex's letter, but if it gave her hope at the beginning of April 1918, that hope was soon lost. A month later she received this letter from the Reverend P. J. Kilduff:
Madam, I regret to inform you that your husband 17051 Pte A. Murray 1/6 Duke of Wellington's was admitted to No. 10 Casualty Clearing Station last week suffering from shell wounds to head and chest, and that he died on 28 April. He received the sacraments during his illness, and was very resigned and patient.
He desired me to say that he sent his love to you and the children. He was interred on 29 April in the local military cemetery according to the rites of the Catholic Church. I beg to offer you and your family my sincere sympathy in your sad bereavement.
Of course, neither Alex nor the Reverend Kilduff could mention any specific location in their letters, so no one — least of all Annie after she had migrated in 1920 to Australia to begin 50 years of widowhood — had any idea where that 'local military cemetery' might be.
Working at the University of London 75 years later, with access to records, war histories and experts willing to discuss my theories, I eventually decided that when Alex moved to 'another front' he must have been part of the immense concentration near Ypres where the fighting in those last months of the war was 'actually hell'.
I presented my research, such as it was, to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Buckinghamshire and — they found him. In a small British War cemetery just outside the village of Arnèke near the Belgian border and a few kilometres from Ieper, as Ypres is now called.
17051 Private Alexander Murray's meticulously tended grave is over near one of the cemetery's low stone walls. Cypresses cast their shade across some of the white headstones and tall corn crowding up to the walls briskly rattled in the breeze. Bees lazed through the lavender nodding across Alex's engraved name; summer sun radiated from the stone.
My wife and I signed the visitors' book, took photos to show the family and, in a nondescript bar back in the village of Arnèke, held a small, long-overdue wake for my grandfather, Alexander Murray. It was as if we knew him at last, as if he had struggled home ('My dearest Ann ... I shall get away on leave') years too late, with no one to meet him, but home nevertheless, home from his 'actual hell'.
Brian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road. He was awarded the 2010 National Biography Award for Manning Clark — A Life.