To my cousins, children, nieces, nephews and all other Moirs,
You remember when Auntie Elsie died and I received five big boxes of her stuff and we held the Holy Yard Sale in my yard in Jamaica Plain and I made you take home rosaries and holy statues, a lifetime of possessions of a wonderful woman and terrific aunt who was in the convent for almost 50 years before she left and moved to Florida with her girlfriend?
I kept a couple of things.
One was a metal box of papers. When I finally opened that box a few years later, I found 36 letters, most of them from our great Uncle Frederick to our great grandparents in Cheshire outside of Liverpool, England. Fred was a sergeant in the British Army and he was stationed in Bangalore, India when he wrote the letters between 1911 and 1917.
Let me tell you a couple of things about Fred. He was a sketch artist and cartoonist. The letters include a couple of his drawings and references to sketches he had published in Indian newspapers. He was engaged to Mill in England, but broke off the engagement when he fell in love with Miss Marjorie Lee in Bangalore. Marjorie was Anglo-Indian, not the mixed race meaning of that term, but the other meaning. She was born in India and I don’t think she had ever been to England. Fred tried very hard for several years to get out of the infantry and into Supply and Transport. He was unsuccessful and in 1916, he was shipped out, first to Alexandria Egypt and then to Mesopotamia. The last three letters from Marjorie and her mother are to our great grandparents and to another Elsie, our great aunt Elsie Rawlinson. We learn that Fred and his best friend, Robinson, were killed within a couple of days of each other in Basra, Mesopotamia in February 1917.
I brought copies of the letters with me to India in hopes that I would get a chance to go to Bangalore and walk around where Fred might have been. I put the trip off because I did not really think I would find any traces. Bangalore is India’s most modern city. But then an opportunity happened and I went there Thursday afternoon.
I was very surprised when I reached the city center to find the infrastructure of the Raj (the British Empire in India) intact, beautiful and still in use. I came into the center on Infantry Road and thought, could Fred have lived here? The next thing I saw was the Post Office and I thought perhaps Fred mailed his letters from here. One of the letters is from Hugh Lee (Marjorie’s father?). It is during the war and he tells Fred that there is a position available for him in the Post Office, but he needs to hurry back because the job cannot be kept open for too long. A little down the road past the Post Office, today’s State Assembly and Courts meet in buildings Fred might have entered.
Behind the Courts is a beautiful park, Cubbon Park in Fred’s time, now named Sri Chamarajendra Park. Would Fred and Marjorie have walked through Cubbon Park? Maybe gone to concerts at the bandstand.
We know from the letters that Marjorie and her family lived on the Residency Road. It was very hot so I decided to take a tuktuk to Residency Road. Just as I got in we passed a Police Station that Fred would have walked past. A few minutes later, we rounded a corner and there was the Cantonment—the military area established by the British military. This is where Fred would have worked. Since independence in 1947, these are the sites of the Indian Army. Speeding past the cantonment in the tuktuk, I spotted the office of the Supply Depot, the office where Fred sought to be transferred, the position that might have saved his life if he had received the transfer. Across the street was the parade ground where troops would have mustered.
I had the driver drop me off at the end of Residency Road. Big mistake. It was crammed with traffic and construction and there was nowhere to walk. Looking down the street, I could see that Residency Road was all new buildings. But then I saw an old one. Now a pretty shabby hotel, this would have been a shiny residence in the 1900s. Maybe Marjorie’s home? Further on there is a suspiciously crossless Catholic Church. It could have originally been the church that the British of Residency Road attended. It would have been High Anglican, the Protestant denomination that Fred’s brother, our grandfather Jack, left when he converted to marry Nana.
I needed to get out of the traffic and onto a sidewalk. I headed toward an intersecting street across a little park. And then I saw the monument—a monument to the British and Indian soldiers who died in World War I. And on the side that I was facing, it said “Mesopotamia,” the theater of war where Fred served and died, today’s Iraq. In English and Kannada, it honored not only the British and Indian officers, but also the NCOs (non-commissioned officers). Fred would have been an NCO.
I burst out crying and stood sobbing on the sidewalk. I told the street vendor standing beside me why I was crying. He was kind in a way that Indians are although he had no idea what I was saying. After a few minutes, I walked around to find the gate into the little park. A guard came to stop me, but when I showed him Fred’s letters and explained why I wanted to get closer, he opened the gate. He stood near me as I cried and took some pictures.
You know, my cousins, that I have spent my life fluctuating between peacenik and socialist. I am not proud that my relative was part of an occupying army. And I am not ashamed. It just is what a working class guy with no prospects might have done at the turn of the twentieth century—or the twentieth-first. And on the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, let us remember that Nana’s people in Ireland were living under the other end of British imperialism.
Like many before and since, our Great Uncle Fred was the fodder of war and paid the price. I am proud that we can remember him as a person and that his memory is recognized in the city where he found love, the city that was his home.
amazing. So glad you got there. Thank you.
I feel like a Moir reading this moving and beautifully written story, Susan. What an amazing Quest you have been on!
So much of your story is similar to me, from the rosaries to the class-based opportunities.
Fifteen years ago, I was sent on a similar mission, by my mother’s cousin, a WWII vet, to Cork City, Ireland. His Great-Uncle had fought and died in the Boer War, an Irishman conscripted by the British to expand their empire. Jim and I searched for a monument Jack had heard had been erected for the dead soldiers somewhere in the city. When we finally found it, it was an obelisk in bad disrepair in a neglected part of town. I was shocked by how many names were engraved into the concrete. Unfortunately, the side that would have listed the M’s, for Martin, had crumbled and fallen away. I remember how sad I felt not to be able to find his name.
So sad, Marilyn, that the monument was not cared for. Uncle Fred also fought in the Boar War but survived…. until he didn’t.
SUsan. What an experience you have had. WHen I came back from Fulbright in Gt. Britain, it took me ten years before I stopped thinking of pieces of my experiences every single day. I wonder if you will ever stop thinking about yours. I hope you write a book as one of your summaries.
Have a great trip home.
Susan –I’ve treasured every word and photo–and I am in tears too, thinking of Uncle Fred and all the young men–and now women–lost to these wars in “Mesopotamia.”
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amazing trek for you and so very nice to honor and revere generations passed. you, my friend, are a jewel in the moir family crown!
Well said, Susan. So glad you are blogging about your experience.
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