This Mother’s Day we pay tribute to the millions of women whose lives were changed forever by the First World War, and especially those whose sons and daughters never returned. There is the remarkable story of Sarah Hanscombe, whose nine serving sons all miraculously lived through the war, but sadly this is a very rare story and most families in Britain were touched by loss and grief.
When I visited the Somme battlefields last year, I was particularly moved by this inscription on a gravestone in Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery Number 1:
When days are dark & friends are few
Dear Son how I long for you
Your Loving Mother
Here, I will share how Lives of the First World War helped to uncover the story behind this deeply personal tribute from mother to son.
These words were taken from the gravestone of Ernest William Wright. He was born in 1895 in Sunderland, County Durham, to Elizabeth Ann and George Andrew Wright. Ernest’s father died when he was a child. Ernest had two brothers and a sister, and the three brothers all worked in a coal mine after leaving school.
- Ernest’s war service
Ernest joined the Royal Field Artillery and later 2 Battalion, Royal Fusiliers. He initially served in the Balkans, arriving on 15 December 1915, before being posted to the Western Front in preparation for the Somme offensive in 1916.
On 1 July 1916, Ernest’s unit was based at the Hawthorn Ridge, near Auchonvillers. The Battalion War Diary provides details of the moment that the British mine underneath the Ridge exploded, making a crater in the German front line 150 yards long, 100 yards wide and 80 feet deep. However, German troops were quickly able to mount their machine guns to defend their lines, and as a result “very few of our men reached as far as the enemy barbed wire” [Extract from WO 95/2301/3, the National Archives]
- A mother’s tribute
Ernest was one of thousands of men killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. He is buried near to where he fell, in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery close to the Hawthorn Ridge crater. Families were given the opportunity to have a personal inscription added to their loved ones gravestone, and there was a charge for each character used. Elizabeth paid 19 shillings 6 pence for her dedication, which was not an insignificant amount of money at that time. Elizabeth’s heartbreaking words can still be found on her beloved son’s grave today – a tribute from a grieving mother.