Merryn Williams

     The great poets of the First World War were never taught at my school.  Instead we learned Rupert Brooke's sonnets and Binyon's 'For the Fallen', and the outstanding poet of that war, Wilfred Owen, was almost forgotten until the 1960s, by which time most of the people who had known him were dead.  

      Now the centenary of that war is upon us.  It is part of my family history; both my grandfathers fought in it and my great-uncle George Dalling was killed at Gallipoli.  My Welsh grandfather Harry Williams, only seventeen when it started, was handed a white feather, an insult he never forgot.  He reluctantly joined up in 1915, was gassed, and transmitted one of the telegrams which announced the Armistice on 11th November 1918.  He could remember men marching in their sleep, just as Owen describes in 'Dulce et Decorum Est'.

       I published a short book, 'Wilfred Owen' for Borderlines on the anniversary of his birth in 1993.  It's not a biography - Dominic Hibberd  wrote the definitive work - but a study of his poetry and his influence.  I also edited 'In the Spirit of Wilfred Owen' (Wilfred Owen Association), an anthology of poems relevant to him and his message, ranging from Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes to Anon.

       Here is the text of a talk I gave at the English Association conference in Oxford in September 2014.  It's about six 'one-hit wonders', the Great War poets Grenfell, Hodgson, McCrae, Seeger, Shaw-Stewart, and the one I like best, Wilson.




      A little-known poet of the First World War was Theodore Percival Cameron Wilson (1888-1918), about whom I wrote a monograph published by Cecil Woolf in his War Poets series in 2006.  Usually called Jim, he was a vicar's son from Paignton who worked as a teacher and enlisted in August 1914 in an idealistic mood, but was appalled by what he saw on the Western Front.  'War is indescribably disgusting', he wrote.  'Any man who has seen it and praises it is degenerate'.

       He was killed in the great German offensive of March 1918.  His one immortal poem, 'Magpies in Picardy', looks serenely and almost impartially at man's propensity to make war:


'The magpies in Picardy

Are more than I can tell.

They flicker down the dusty roads

And cast a magic spell

On the men who march through Picardy,

Through Picardy to hell ............'






      Captain Ernest Quilliam, my husband’s grandfather, an unquiet ghost.  He doesn’t have a known grave and his photographs somehow disappeared.

      He was killed on 21st March 1918 in the great German offensive, and my father-in-law Dr Derek Quilliam, who lived to be eighty, was born six months later in the final weeks of the war.   I did notice that he hadn’t been named after his father, a dead hero, but in those days all I knew was that his mother had remarried and that Derek had been brought up by the man he called Pen.  I didn’t believe that a civilised country would ever again get involved in a war.

      I began looking into Ian’s family tree when our children were at secondary school and I had time on my hands.  It helped that his name is so unusual (my own family is called Jones, and came from further down the social scale, so I lost them in the Valleys around 1900).  The Quilliams were Shropshire gentry and I have traced them back as far as the Civil War, in which of course they took the Cavalier side.  Generations of younger sons had gone into the church or to India.  The main line lived near Much Wenlock in a rather nice white house with an avenue of lime trees - I’ve seen it, it is now a youth hostel - which was sold in the 1960s after the last aunt died.  The Captain was in a famous Welsh regiment and had got through three years fighting almost without a scratch.  He married Derek’s mother Alice in 1917 and, presumably, spent Christmas with her in the family home.  She would have been there, pregnant and surrounded by Quilliams, when the telegram arrived.

      Alice was an orphan, Norwegian by descent but with no living relatives.  It is obvious from her photographs that she was strikingly beautiful, a natural blonde, which may explain why she got married twice when so many women of her generation did not marry at all.  The Captain’s two sisters never did but went on living in that house for their entire lives.  An awful atmosphere, Derek said.

      I talked a lot to Derek, whom I was very fond of, about his family during his last six months.  We both knew, without saying so, that he was on the way out; he had had two heart attacks and couldn’t walk far without becoming short of breath (a sad thing, for someone who had climbed Cader Idris countless times),  but his mind was as clear as it had always been.  The first surprise was, that he hadn’t got any photographs of the Captain.

      ‘Oh, yes’, Derek said, ‘the house was full of his photographs, mostly in uniform, but they were presumably thrown out when my aunts died.  That was the year I was in Australia, so my mother saw to everything.  She died herself two years later and I really never thought about them’.

      Only a man, I thought, could have been so incurious.

      ‘I don’t remember what he looked like, I’m afraid.  You see, I was only three months old when she married Pen, so naturally I thought of him as my father’.

      That was the second surprise.  Only three months old, only nine months after her first husband’s death; she certainly hadn’t wasted much time.  Derek went on to say that there was always a certain tension when he stayed with his grandmother and aunts; they didn’t approve of his mother or of Pen who, after all, had survived when their son and brother had been killed.  They’d talked to him incessantly about what a hero his father was, that is when they weren’t complaining about how everything had gone to the dogs since the war.  They lived on in that house, two ageing sisters, on what was called family money for another half century.  Although they’d made a will leaving everything to Derek, in fact he got nothing because they were heavily in debt when they died.  Alice had always disliked going there and took none of their things; every clock, every last silver apostle spoon, was given away.

      Her second husband, Arthur Penrose, was an Englishman who had grown up in Swansea and been Quilliam’s lieutenant.  He got through the spring offensive with the loss of one arm and, when he came back, went to see her.  (An instant romance, I suppose).  Once demobilised, he’d sworn that he would never again put on uniform, and taught in a grammar school for the rest of his life.  He and Derek seem to have been very close, as there were no other children.  In 1939 they had a long talk about pacifism as a result of which Derek agreed to finish his medical training, and he was in Germany with the Red Cross at the end of the Second World War when Pen, who was just fifty, died.

       ‘And that’, said Derek (I was finding out more in these few weeks than in all the years I’d known him), ‘was when my mother finally told me how she felt about Quilliam.  I said something about her having had bad luck, losing two husbands, and she said very forcefully that only one husband mattered’.

      ‘No doubt which one she meant?’

      ‘No, indeed.  They were a devoted couple.  She told me that she knew absolutely nothing when she got married; that my father had a violent temper and often hit her.  Of course, in those days respectable people didn’t get divorced.  She also said that Pen disliked him because he was brutal to the men.   I know that he - Pen - saw a lot of things that upset him, court-martials for cowardice and so on.  But he hardly ever talked about the war’.

      More and more peculiar, I thought.  If he disliked the man, why did he trek all the way to Shropshire to look up his widow?  Could they have known each other, perhaps, while the Captain was alive?  Alice with her baby in her husband’s house, surrounded by his grieving mother and sisters and probably coping with a lot of guilt, the deep mourning which everyone then wore setting off her Scandinavian fairness.  Besides, the two of them would soon have sensed that they felt the same way about Quilliam.   No, it must have been an instant, powerful, mutual attraction.

      It hit us all very hard when Derek died, and for a few years I did no more work on the family tree; in any case I thought I’d already got as far as I could.  But I am still very interested in the Great War and it no longer seems like ancient history, not now when we are constantly getting ourselves into little wars, so, when a programme was shown about the men ‘shot at dawn’ for desertion and cowardice, I sat up late to watch.  It’s interesting that we’re still talking about these men, even though they were a minute fraction of those killed.  It was the awful irony, I suppose, that they ended up being put to death by their own side.  And, after a while, an extremely old man came on.  Older than Derek, I thought with a pang.  His voice was quavery but his eyes were bright and he was perfectly coherent.  He had been very young in 1918, one of those boys who were in the last batch to be called up.  He was telling the story I had got to know so well, about a young chap they called Tommy, who had been found wandering miles behind the line, in shock, and been court-martialled and then shot by his own comrades, crying for his mother.  It was nearly midnight, and I was struggling to stay awake.   Then he said, ‘He was a horrible man, Captain Q’.

      I sat up.

      ‘A bully; everyone hated him.  You see,  we thought he wanted to get us all killed and get a medal for himself, and there was a lot of bad feeling, too, about what happened to Tommy.  So two of the fellows swore they were going to get him, and’ - he chuckled - ‘they did’.  

      ‘Go on’, the young interviewer said with interest.

      I remember that aged, freckled face, with its ring of white hair around the skull, and he was still grinning.

      ‘They lobbed a grenade at him, blew him to pieces.  It was 21st March, when everything was going crazy.  Mind, I think the lieutenant - Mr P. - suspected something, but he never said one word’.



      ‘Are you saying’, demanded my husband, ‘that my grandfather wasn’t killed by the Germans at all but was murdered by his own men?   My God, that’s absolutely appalling!   And are you saying Pen knew?

       ‘I don’t think that Pen actually knew.  I think he guessed’.

      For that, of course, would explain a lot.  I couldn’t find the old man and ask him whether the lieutenant was Mr Penrose; he was gone before the programme went on air, and nobody will ever now know exactly how the Captain died.  On 21st March 1918, nobody was taking notes.  But Pen had lived with him for months, known the sort of man he was, come to hate his brutality.  And something, in the week before he himself was wounded, may have made him suspicious.  A look on a man’s face, some small detail that didn’t quite fit.  Or, perhaps, he had overheard two men talking under their breath in their own language.  He himself spoke with a standard English accent, I am told, but he understood Welsh.

      ‘Fragging, they called it’, Ian said, when he had absorbed the shock.  ‘It’s short for fragmenting;   it went on in Vietnam’.

      Only a man would have read all those dreary books of military history.

      Pen had probably spent several months in hospital, knowing he was out of it, while the war moved into its final phase.  Learning to write with his left hand, worrying about what to do.  From everything I know about him, I think he must have worried.  Could he be sure what had happened, could he blame the men if indeed they were guilty?  Should he report it, bring on more court-martials and executions?  Perhaps he thought that it couldn’t be proved anyway, perhaps the men had already been killed.  And at some point, he would have realised that his decision was taken.  But he would have gone on fretting, especially when he heard that Quilliam’s wife had had a baby.   So, once he was back on his feet again, he went to see her.

      I thought of a young man with an empty sleeve and some horrible memories, getting off the train at a station which is now closed and walking up the avenue of limes which was cut down last year.  Expecting it to be a duty visit, not knowing if the family would welcome or reject him.  The attraction, as I’d always thought, was strong and instant.

     And a very short time afterwards, Alice had picked up her baby, got married - probably to the horror and fury of her in-laws - and headed off with Pen to Wales.  Derek’s name was not changed, and they remained on polite terms with the Quilliams, but his stepfather brought him up according to his own values.  He probably said nothing to his wife about the circumstances of the Captain’s death, and certainly nothing to the child.


      It occurred to me, of course, that Derek might actually have been Pen’s son, but he wasn’t.  Not only because there is no evidence that he and Alice met before the end of the war, but because I did in the end find a photograph of the Captain.  It was on microfilm, in a Shropshire Gazette carrying pictures of the officers who were killed that week, and apart from the uniform and the moustache, I could have been looking at Derek.  Which made me cry for a few minutes.  All the more interesting, then, that he resembled his father in no other way.

      Ian has only sisters, and my own children are girls, so the name Quilliam will probably die out in the next generation.


                                  Merryn Williams


                                                                                                         originally published in Stand

Wilfred Owen Association t.p. cameron wilson One-hit