Opening another, heavier envelope, to my surprise I found a quarto photograph, on stiff card and unframed, of a handsome young soldier. He wore the distinctive bush hat of the Australian forces, tipped back to give a good three-quarter view of the face. Like a classic portrait, below the chest the battledress was faded, the background just a few sketched lines on what might have been white paper.
Following what I’d just seen, it had the most extraordinary impact. Shock, maybe. Surprise, certainly, followed by a moment of warmth. It was as though I’d finally come face to face with someone I’d heard about and always wanted to meet.
With age and hindsight I can see the portrait was by a photographer who knew his craft. That has to be part of the attraction. But Will was killed just days before his 24th birthday, and knowledge like that strikes deep. By reputation he was a decent man, but even so, something seems to elevate those who die young, especially those who die in war. The camera fixes a moment of nobility, while the mind dwells on sacrifice.
Hard to match that with the book, Covenant With Death that I’d just set aside. But if there was precious little nobility in those pictures, the sacrifice could not be questioned. I propped the portrait against the sideboard, together with the picture of the Menin Gate, and sat back on my heels. A name carved in stone on a lonely memorial seemed unbearably poignant, and with that unmarked face before me, eyes gazing steadfastly at a point somewhere to my left, I felt the tragedy of his death like a personal loss.
Saddened, slightly chastened, I was about to restore things to their rightful place when I realized there was something else in the envelope, something small but quite weighty. Bound in indigo, with Gothic initials impressed in gold leaf on the cover, a little book slid into my hands.
I turned it over before opening it up, unable to believe my eyes as I read the flyleaf. Incredibly, I was holding something that the man in the photograph had written: his own pocket diary for the year 1916. Thoughts and experiences no doubt inscribed on a daily basis and carried close to his heart. I could barely take it in: it was like touching him, receiving a gift, a personal and intimate gift from his time to mine.
On the flyleaf I saw Will’s name and signature, his 3 digit army number and the unit to which he was attached: a machine gun company of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, Australian Imperial Forces. Below, was written: In the event of my death, please forward this diary to – there followed a name and address in York.
‘In the event of my death…’ That gave a chill. ‘Blown to bits,’ my mother had said, gazing at the wayside poppies. ‘Nothing left to bury…No known grave… his name is on the Menin Gate…’
I stroked the little diary, imagining the writer’s fingers around it, the times he must have clutched it, pocketed it. I could hardly believe I was holding something so precious. I turned each delicate leaf, finding writing so tiny it was hard to read. The Memoranda ran to several pages, densely written, and then, surprisingly, just a few brief comments at the beginning of the year.
One read: ‘Drill as usual. 5th& 6th Batt leave Tel el Kebir for Suez. Living on dry bread and tea, except for what we buy.’
Those words dried my throat. How terrible, I thought; how unutterably cruel. And then I was wondering, why Egypt, what was he doing there? How did that tie up with Flanders and the book I’d just put away?
Turning the pages I read on, all sense of time forgotten.