‘Spiritual laws are also automatic’ is the epitaph of Edward Hastings Owen, 1st Battalion, The Buffs. A young man of 19 who was killed in the fighting around Ypres in May 1918, most likely as a result of gas. I have mentioned Private Owen before because his epitaph, out of the many 1000’s I have seen during my time on the Old Front Line, continues to resonant more than any other. The fact that the epitaph does not appear to be a direct quotation from any book or scripture makes it all the more powerful in my eyes. Where did it come from? What does it mean? Why was it chosen? It is, truly open to interpretation and for me it is highly symbolic of the philosophical power the Western Front has as a whole.
‘Spiritual laws’ then, how should we interpret this, and how does it relate to the Great War? Well we may be more familiar with physical laws so let’s start there – besides, it gives me a chance to dig out my astrophysics lecture notes! Physical laws are scientific statements based on empirical evidence that describe an aspect of the natural world. They are discovered through experimentation and observation of the world around us, rather than invented. One of the fundamental physical laws of the Universe is the Law of the Conservation of Energy. That is to say, that energy of any kind; be it chemical, potential or kinetic, can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed or transferred. Think about a shell exploding. It may seem as if the impact of a shell blast results in nothing but destruction, but we know in reality that this is not the case. If you were to add up the energy released during the explosion, including the heat and sound emitted and the potential and kinetic energy of all the individual pieces of shrapnel as they move through the air, it would equal the exact decrease in chemical energy that occurs during the combustion of the explosive. This Law is universal, it is true in the smallest of interactions to the largest. We know for example, that the building blocks of life, and I mean all life (all that ever was, is or will be) were created in the heart of stars when the Universe first began. As the helium atoms maniacally danced, crashing into one another the process of nucleosynthesis started and gradually, elements from hydrogen, to carbon and oxygen were formed. As stars age, the elements they produced become heavier including iron and nickel. Then when a star finally reaches the end of its life, it may explode and all the elements within are scattered across the universe, for the process to begin again. Never any more, never any less, just the same atoms; transformed by their environment.
Here is where physical laws intersect with our spirituality. If nothing is neither created nor destroyed, what of the man killed by the shell? Our physical laws tell us, that though he is killed in an instant of violent brutalism, that in that same fraction of a second, all that man is has not been destroyed, but transformed into something else. In the moments of Tommy’s death, his body was not destroyed but transformed. The atoms in his body were broken down and released back into the Universe as something else. This reaction is, well, automatic.
And yet, none of this detracts from nor explains the horror of the incident. The loss, the impact, the emotional trauma. These reactions which define us as humans. To bridge this gap, for thousands of years humans have believed that the Universe is not just subject to physical laws, but spiritual laws also. Defined through the teachings of various ancient cultures and religions tracing lineage back to ancient Egypt, Greece and Vedism among others, these laws can be separated into two categories: mutable or immutable. The immutable laws are those which exist across the Universe and cannot and have not ever, been altered. There is one immutable law which seems particularly relevant in the case of Edward Hastings Owen’s epitaph – the Law of Correspondence. The Law of Correspondence states: ‘as above, so below; as below, so above’. Now, for those non-spiritualists among you, hang in there and bear with me… essentially what the Law of Correspondence tells us is that the energy we create while on Earth (below) automatically projects upwards (above) which is then returned back to us (as above, so below) i.e. everything in the Universe is connected. Those of you who are religious will know this in a different form – the idea that God is not outside of you, but within you too; God is everywhere. The Law takes many forms but the essence of it remains the same and most of us have felt it in some way. Some call it ‘Karma’, some ‘luck’, some ‘divine intervention’ others simply ‘fate’.
With this in mind, let’s return to Private Owen. First, let me tell you a little about his short life before the war, in an attempt to shed some light on why his family may have chosen such an inscription.
The 1911 census shows us that Edward Hastings was one of 5 children. His parents, Edward and Margaret, had been married for 12 years – Edward was a tobacconist and confectioner and the family were living in Reigate, Surrey. What is unusual is that Edward Hastings and his brother Robert Gilbert were not born in South East England like their younger sisters, but in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. After a little searching, I managed to find their birth certificates from the Brazilian archives and looking at the dates, I think it’s a fair assumption to assume Margaret and Edward were married in Brazil, too. Edward was likely over there for business, since the tobacco and sugar trade was thriving at the beginning of the 20thcentury. What does this tell us? Well, not a lot other than the facts as I’ve mentioned, but perhaps, just perhaps, being that little more widely travelled than most 19 year olds, Edward Hastings had a slightly different outlook on life.
If you look at the epitaph again you will notice there is a date (2-3-18) underneath and ‘Spiritual laws are also automatic’ is inscribed in quotation marks. I believe that the epitaph may be a quote from letter that Edward sent home a few months before his death. This is all complete conjecture but somehow to me, it makes sense. We know that many soldiers became somewhat fatalistic and spiritual beliefs were certainly called into question by men thrown from their every day lives into the melee of war. Edward’s battalion had been involved in some particularly heavy fighting during March of 1918. As the German Spring Offensive was in full swing, The Buffs faced heavy casualties as they grimly hung on defending the front line near Vaulx. Further, we may assume from his service number that Edward had been in the Army for a year or so before he died – seeing his fair share of ‘action’.
So, I wonder then if this epitaph may be the words of a 19 year old who has seen death and tried to make some sense of the world in which he found himself. A 19 year old who perhaps concluded that just as gravity ensures that what goes up must come down, so too the spiritual laws ensure that death is not the end. That you can never really lose someone, for there is no separation, since everything in the Universe is connected ‘as below, as above’. The smallest details – the hydrogen, carbon and oxygen atoms that our beating hearts are made of – were formed in the incomprehensibly large – the stars in our night sky. As the physical laws dictate these reactions will take place automatically, so too will the spiritual laws as they intersect…
‘So do not worry if I die Mother, for spiritual laws are also automatic.’
Perhaps it was written. Perhaps not. Of course, no one will ever know. There are an untold number of secrets held by the men in the Silent Cities that will remain only theirs forever, but in searching for an answer, there is no doubt that we can find answers to our own questions. The Law of Correspondence is there plain for us to see and feel, as each time we visit the the Old Front Line we leave a piece of ourselves in those fields and take a piece of Them, with us.
Special thanks to Mick Mills for his encyclopaedic Buffs knowledge and Andy Arnold for the updated photo of Edward’s grave.