Monday, 26 October 2015

Uncle Billy's Grave. A WWI memory by guest blogger Lesley Goad

When Lesley sent me this story about her WWI family hero, I thought you'd like to read it too.


I am writing this on a glorious June day, sitting in my garden surrounded by fragrant
roses in full bloom, reflecting on the events of last week while staying by Lake Garda in Italy. Thinking especially of the planned visit to  the World War 1 Cemetery at Montecchio Precalcino in the Province of Vicenza, hoping to find Great Uncle James William (always known as Billy) Goad's last resting place.

Born in 1890 the second son of  James Stuart and Mary Jane Goad, a dairy farmer of Swavesey, Cambridgeshire, he had served his apprenticeship locally as a carpenter and had left to seek his fortune at  Chalfont- St- Peter, Buckinghamshire where lots of new housing developments were happening at this time at the turn of the century. He was  accompanied by  his village school friend Wilfred Hepher, also a carpenter, whose brother Walter had married Billy's eldest sister Maud.

In August 1914 life as England knew it would never be the same, the halcyon Edwardian days were over, the seething political undercurrents taking place all over Europe came to a head with the assassination Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, culminating in Kaiser Wilhelm and the Central Powers, ie; Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria fighting against the Western Allies. Russia, France, Britain, Italy and Rumania, eventually being joined in 1917 by the U.S.A.
All this intrigue and sabre rattling created the turmoil of WW1.

When war was declared in August 1914 Billy immediately volunteered for war service and became part of 7th Division Train, Royal Army Service Corps as a driver and was sent to France in the September of 1914 to prepare for the early stages of fighting, of which it was generally thought by all that it would be over and resolved by the following Christmas.

When Billy came home to Swavesey on much needed leave he was welcomed by all, they, proud of the patriotism of one of their sons, he, the first of many, proudly wearing the 1914 Star, awarded in the first campaign for early combat services.

Billy served continuously in France, no record is found of his being wounded until while serving on the Eastern Front in Italy, on Sunday 28th July 1918 , Billy after contracting dysentery sadly died there. He was then laid in foreign soil, his life and sacrifice unknown by the present day generation of Goad's until I started my family research in 2012.

 He was an unknown uncle to us all and  also there was the unknown fact that their Grandfather Tom, Billy's elder brother, in 1922 called his last born son, William, obviously as a tribute to his memory. He was always known as Billy too when a boy.

This William was my husband Paddy's father, who is not remembered as ever having talked of his namesake Billy who never returned  home again.

My husband Paddy and I resolved to go to Italy to find Billy's resting place, so in June 2015 we found ourselves travelling in a hired car along the roads north of Verona our heads full of thoughts and emotions of our adventure ahead.

I carried in my bag a glass jar of soil, perhaps containing a seed or two, taken from the farmland of his brother Tom, where we now live to-day, to place on his grave, as a symbol of his  Cambridgeshire home.

While researching for my book I had found written in the local 'Cambridge News' 9th August 1918 newspaper Billy's obituary stating, “His body lies in sunny Italy, and his friends will always remember that, there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England .”

The car stopped outside the small village cemetery of Montecchio Precalcino, situated deep in the heart of the sunny northern Italian countryside, surrounded by  trees and hedges creating a  verdure green world. Beside this local village resting place were stone and iron gates with steps leading to our destination of some of the WW1 war graves of Britain. Paddy jumped out of the car, climbed the steps to open the closed gates, his first impression was of neat rows of memorial stones, 400 in all, individually engraved with tributes and regimental badges.

He stepped inside and just in front of him was his Great Uncle Billy, as if waiting to welcome him to Row A, Plot 1.

There are no words I can write to explain the feelings of the next moments.

We walked and talked and cried, we were his first visitors for almost a hundred years, Paddy told him the family news and we sprinkled our Hill Farm soil amongst the flowers growing by his white marble gravestone. Alpines of  a bright pink were flowering there, I bent to pull out what I thought was a weed from them and quickly stopping as I realised it was a random self-set forget-me-not growing and waiting to flower.

The symbolism of this was not lost on us and we smiled, suddenly time seemed to stand still, only the songs of the birds broke the peaceful silence within the stone walls of this small sacred patch of Italy, which for those buried there will forever  be a part of their homeland England.

A large stone cross mounted with a bronze sword  towered over the sleeping soldiers, with laburnum trees either side, we put our names in the visitors book situated in a small open roofed shelter. We walked through and read the names and poignant messages engraved on the stones from their families.

Billy's father James Stuart and mother Mary Jane's chosen words were “ Peace With Honour”. Plain and simple as their Bethel Baptist faith.
We photographed this beautiful resting place of men who had sacrificed  their lives in hoping to make the world a better place.

One last word with Uncle Billy and we left this beautifully kept holy ground of memories, feeling so grateful for the setting up of the International War Graves Commission and the work they do  to-day which enabled us to feel closer to an Uncle  and ancestor whose life and sacrifice has mattered and also to be valued by mankind.

Lesley Goad is author of "Fen Farming Family", a remarkable story of one local family, the Goads, living in Swavesey and Stretham - and the rest of the world! see http://miltoncontact.co.uk/fenfarmingfamily

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