In a recent article in the ‘Derry Journal’, Geoff Simmons revealed the remarkable story of a young soldier from England, his teenage Derry bride, his role on the battlefields of the First World War, his execution for alleged desertion and eventual pardon. The soldier was Robert Hope and he’s buried in a small cemetery in a quiet corner of Belgium. Just weeks ago, Geoff travelled to visit Robert’s grave and pay his respects to someone whose headstone includes the inscription: “Of Waterside, Derry”. He wrote the following article on his return from Belgium:
Eleven o’clock was the appointed hour and a crowd of about forty people of all ages slowly gathered in the little cemetery. On a blazing hot day, everything seemed more vibrant than on my previous visit. The white slabs of marble appeared more polished and upright than before, standing boldly to attention in the dappled sunlight. I had forgotten how prominent Robert’s position is. Right in the middle of the front row, close to a Major and a couple of other officers. The absolute perfect spot for a commemoration - it almost felt like he had been waiting for this moment to happen.
Friends of The In Flanders Fields Museum (VIFF) very respectfully told the story at length. They explained what is known about Robert Hope, his family and his background. They told how he joined the Inniskillings and where he served with them, his disappearance, trial and execution. The connection with my great uncle Alan Lendrum was outlined and how I’d visited the grave and was able to learn so much from the personal inscription.
A reading was made of Padre Guy Rogers’ account of his last night with a young soldier preparing himself for execution. Many people were visibly shaken by this highly emotive passage. Following this was an extremely moving performance of ‘The Deserter’ by a VIFF member. Two buglers stood to attention behind the grave and sounded The Last Post. Then came the laying of wreaths.
It was extraordinary to witness bright sunshine illuminating the grave at this exact moment. Ten minutes later it had moved to the next headstone, but with perfect natural choreography; it was as if a piercing shaft of light had emerged from the trees behind us to bathe this one particular headstone. I had to pinch myself to believe it was happening but others confirmed it afterwards.
I was then asked to say a few words. I observed the contrast between my own family’s military exploits - well-remembered tales of their deeds and heroic actions preserved via descendants, museums, medals and websites, passed down through the generations. Others, such as Robert Hope, were not so fortunate and had nothing of this. Only silence, muddle and confusion, a soldier written out of history.
I also wanted to acknowledge Rosina McGilloway, of Sugarhouse Lane in Derry, the teenage widow whose decision to put three words on a grave made all this possible.
I read a few lines from Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’ in which she articulates the 1915 loss of her own precious young sweetheart.
The previous evening, we’d joined a crowd of people at the nightly commemoration at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, on which are inscribed the names of 55,000 soldiers who died in this region with no known grave.
This was July 5, the precise date of Robert’s execution.
The traffic stopped, the crowd hushed and a stillness descended. A young woman played a familiar lament on a violin. To many people it is known as ‘Danny Boy’ but the hairs on the back of my neck pricked as it dawned on me that those gathered to remember were listening to what is also known as ‘The Derry/Londonderry Air’.