This grave at Essex Farm caught my attention as I wandered quietly among Them last weekend. It’s the grave of a young lad, Private Philip Phillips of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. I was drawn to the grave as I so often am, by the inscription which reads: ‘He weakened my strength in the way he shortened my days in loving memory’
Philip was from Ruabon in Wales, a village with a rich industrial history, where he worked as a filler in one of the many coal mines in the area. He joined the locally raised 13th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers – the 1st North Wales Pals – and set off for France in December 1915. As the 13th were holding the line near Boesinghe in October of 1916, Private Phillips was killed.
The inscriptions on the CWGC headstones are something that have always drawn me to the Old Front Line. They give life to the men they represent; they give them a voice. A voice that once spoke loudly the deafening words of grief from a Mother, Father or Wife.
Private Phillips’ epitaph was chosen by his parents and I wonder if they ever had the chance to visit their son and see the words that would remain his for eternity on this small patch of Belgium soil? Perhaps they visited once, perhaps they visited every year until their death, to kneel and weep for their son. Perhaps they never had the chance, and sent those words away with all the love and longing that a parent has to be reunited with a lost child.
The inscription they chose seemed unusual to me. It is important for me to take time to understand what these epitaphs are trying to convey, as I can imagine relatives agonising over how best to use the few characters offered to them by the IWGC, as it then was. After all, there aren’t enough words in the English language to describe the grief of losing a loved one, so to decide upon just a few lines to embody that on a grave you may never see must have been incredibly painful. As such, I feel it is my duty to take the time to understand them. Perhaps Private Phillips’ parents never had the chance to cast their eyes upon the engraving, but I have 100 or so years later, and so not only will I see it but I will take the time to listen.
‘He weakened my strength in the way; he shortened my days’ did not strike me as religious upon first glance, but as it transpires, it is actually from a Psalm which reads:
“He weakened my strength in the way; he shortened my days. I said, O my God, take me not away in the midst of my days: thy years are throughout all generations. Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands. They shall perish, but thou shalt endure: yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed.”
After some time to reflect on this, the inscription began to make more sense to me than when I initially read it. His parents, I believe, are saying that in losing their son, God has taken away their strength in life and in doing so he has cut short their remaining days. And yet, the rest of the Psalm is more hopeful, in the belief that whether in life or death God endures and so all his creation does, too. At least, that is my interpretation…
In this, I hear the grief of a Mother and Father who not only questioned their faith but wondered how they would go on living without their dear son. Though, I like to think that faith helped to see them through their grief as the rest of the Psalm suggests. These words are just as powerful, the volume of the message just as loud, as it was 100 years ago. It just takes someone not only to see but to listen, and as I walk in the Silent Cities of the Somme and the Salient, I am often overwhelmed by the noise.