The unfortunate young man was my father’s uncle, who was killed in 1915. We knew it had a distinctive tomb, unlike the 600,000 or so other World War I wars that lay beneath “unknown” tombstones. Unfortunately we were given other duff information.
Go many years ahead beyond the advent of the Internet. The tomb that was the subject of our fruitless search was actually located in the small town of Bailleul in northern France, about 10 miles from Ypres and three miles from the Belgian border.
We were looking for the wrong country.
Another search opportunity would never arise for my father. Life got in the way. Our inability to find the tomb disappointed him until his death in January 2022.
I think I am right to say that the tomb has never been visited. Until very recently.
Pvt Lawrence A Gillan
The soldier in question was Lawrence Albert Gillan, born December 17, 1896, the second of nine children born to Robert and Margaret Gillan and the only soldier not born in Sunderland. He first breathed in South Shields. One of his siblings was my grandfather Tony Gillan (1910-92).
So Lawrence was my great-uncle (and for those interested in that sort of thing, actor Karen Gillan’s great-great-uncle; his grandfather was also called Lawrence Gillan in honor of his late uncle).
When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Lawrence, an apprentice blacksmith according to the 1911 census, was among the first to enlist at age 17, though not old enough.
This is a familiar story. He lied about his age in order to eat three meals a day and receive a salary from the Durham Light Infantry.
The main reason for this is simple and equally familiar. Complete poverty. Although the chauvinistic recruiters on the commission were not always overly scrupulous and filled the heads of young people with magic.
The false phrase “Christmas is Over” has become a virtual advertising slogan for what was originally an invitation to slaughter. Lawrence was among the millions doomed to join a war he probably didn’t understand. But he thought he looked great in his uniform.
Her mother was horrified and responded with a warning that was worded as harshly as Victorian times allowed. She later claimed that she knew that her son would never return, and she fully waited for the “letter”.
My grandfather remembered his brother and vaguely remembered playing with his rifle, but he would never have seen Lawrence’s grave. My grandfather never left England – and traveling abroad was not an option for his poor parents.
If you still have grandparents, ask more questions than I do.
A lifetime soon ended
We knew at that family vacation that Lawrence’s life ended on October 17, 1915. Had he died in Ypres, as we misunderstood, he would have died from his wounds some time after the war. Both Battles of Ypres had ended by then.
However, the part about fatally injured was true. We finally discovered that he had succumbed to his wounds in the hospital where he spent the last two weeks; probably to die in pain.
We still don’t know exactly what killed him or in which hospital he died. All we can conclude is that it was truly awful.
However, it seems very likely that it was the Battle of Loos that claimed it, as it was fought between September 25 and October 13, 1915. It ended in a German victory.
Loos isn’t the most famous World War I battle, as there were “only” about 70,000 casualties, whereas the Somme, for example, had over a million casualties.
Another war, another brother
Lawrence’s parents, Robert and Margaret, lived until 1959 and 1952, respectively. It was not uncommon for their generation to lose a child in war.
What’s a little unusual is that 11 months after losing Lawrence, they have a ninth and final child, Lawrence Albert Gillan, to whom they gave the same name. To avoid confusion, the new son was known by his middle name. He would grow up wondering about the brother he never knew.
When World War II began, Albert was working as a mason at Burnley and was recruited into the Lancashire Fusiliers. We can only imagine what was going through their parents’ minds.
Albert saw a lot of action, especially at Monte Cassino in 1944. However, he survived the war and lived to be 86 years old. However, Robert and Margaret did not know this in 1939.
On October 3, 2022, I finally went to Bailleul and Lawrence’s grave; a corner of an alien space that is forever England. Although it was a strange experience, I felt like a mistake had been corrected.
The tombstone gives the date of death, but not the age.
I’m not sure how I feel, but after 107 years I was glad that the tomb was finally visited.
It has been quite humiliatingly claimed that the Battle of Waterloo was “won on the playgrounds of Eton”. It is unknown who said this, but the search should begin with a buffoon, then work down. Whether it’s Waterloo, Agincourt, Basra or Loos, wars don’t work like that.
And whoever said this should apologize to Pvt Lawrence Gillan.
My visit to Lawrence in the beautifully manicured war-grave section of the cemetery was invaluable. I haven’t learned much, but it still confirms once again that 107 years isn’t really that long after all. About a mile away, Ukrainian refugees were picking fruit.
*Thank you Jennifer Bainbridge