On Memorial Day, reverence and sadness

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The Battle of the Somme

On this Memorial Day, a Connecticut writer remembers his great uncle who, like millions of others, made the ultimate sacrifice against tyranny and oppression.

Captain William George Gabain, my great uncle, died 100 years ago in the Great War, now known as World War I. He was killed in action in northern France, as he was trying to make sure that all of his men had heard the order to withdraw in the face of an overwhelming German advance. He and several other soldiers in The Rifle Brigade of the British Expeditionary Force were last seen surrounded by enemy troops.

A British citizen, he had just passed his fourth winter in Belgium and France. He was 28 years old.

The story of “Uncle Willie,” as my mother always called him, migrated to Connecticut because his sister married an American and moved to New Haven. His local descendants include two great great-nephews who served in the U.S. Army: my son and my brother’s son. The former served in Afghanistan and the latter served in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Uncle Willie”  arrived in France in the summer of 1914 soon after the guns of August had erupted. He almost immediately came under fire. He served in various capacities, initially as a motorcycle dispatch rider; in one letter home he reported being  “in the saddle” once more than 24 hours straight. Later he was assigned to be an intelligence officer since he spoke German and French: his duties included reconnaissance and interrogating prisoners.

He was often at the front and saw intermittent action throughout. In November of 1916 he was in the trenches near the Somme River, in one of the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare: some 1 million men were killed or wounded. The British lost more than 19,000 men in the first day alone of the months long campaign.

Reading the newsy and largely upbeat letters that Captain Gabain regularly wrote home to his parents, who lived in Bushey, near London, one does not get the least hint that this remarkable bloodbath was anything extraordinary or worth more than a sentence or two. Clearly there was no point in upsetting the family—including his five sisters, among them my maternal grandmother.  Perhaps, too, the horror of it all was simply best not stipulated for the sake of his own peace of mind.

My great uncle’s letters from the first year of the war are optimistic, full of hope of imminent great victories that soon would “seal Germany’s fate.” Two years hence, reality occasionally intruded. In one letter he wrote without specificity of the “horrors of this futile war.” But he immediately added a qualifying sentence to soften the blow, “No I don’t think it is quite futile.” It wasn’t yet half over.

He characterized the enemy in various ways. In describing how German gunners shelled a church near his position—deliberately and apparently gratuitously—he termed it an example of “their sheer love of destruction.” Uncle Willie, who before the war had spent several happy summer vacations in Germany, also trotted out terms like “rapacious Huns” at times.

But his interrogation of enemy prisoners inspired different comments. Some of the captured Germans were arrogant and uncooperative, as he conceded was their right, but others were “friendly and communicative and yet dignified.” Not a few were terrified and wanted no more of the Great War.

Some of the POWs carried letters from home as well as ones they had intended to mail; Uncle Willie found the latter to be “almost exactly” like his own. In the missive to his mother, he added, “Also the letters from German mothers are just the same as yours!”

Such insights aside, Captain Gabain never doubted that there was a right side to the Great War and that he was fighting on it. In all of his letters, there is not one sentence that is critical of his superiors or the way in which they waged the Great War, whose result was an estimated 18 million military and civilian deaths and another 23 million wounded. It was, indeed, a Great War.

By January 1918, an understandable note of weariness had crept into his prose. He wrote to his mother: “I should tell you my news; so here goes. To put it shortly, I am sick tired of being a ‘paper Soldier’ and have decided to transfer to the Infantry and qualify for a proper General Staff appointment.”

While he had been frequently in harms way throughout his nearly four years of service and injured in a motorcycle accident, his duties often required working out of range of enemy fire. But by February of the last year of the war, proffered by some to be the war to end all wars, Uncle Willie was in the trenches for good.

Remarkably, the change of scenery invigorated him. “I am feeling as happy as the day is long,” he wrote to his mother.

After March 20, 1918, his almost daily correspondence ceased. A letter dated April 4 arrived instead, with the terrible news: Captain William George Gabain had been reported missing nearly two weeks previously. The months to follow confirmed the family’s worst fears. He was not a prisoner of war. He had been killed in battle. His body was never found.

Many decades later, my mother, who was 6 when he died, spoke of Uncle Willie with a combination of reverence and sadness, for the man he was, and the man he might have become.

David Holahan is a freelance writer from East Haddam.


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