Story by John Mellor | Photo by Terry Berill
Members of my family paid a visit to France in search of a memorial to a relative who died in May 1918, a few months before the end of the First World War.
My wife Margaret and I, along with our daughter and son, Debbie and Andrew, travelled to the city of Soissons in the north of France to visit a memorial to Margaret’s uncle, Harold Nelson. He was reported as ‘missing’ in May 1918 and, despite enquiries at the War Office at that time by his father, Charles Nelson of Rochdale, there were no details of what had happened to him. At the time the family didn’t know whether he had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner, and there was no known grave.
He was aged 23, a Methodist local preacher, and had become engaged before joining the South Wales Borderers; his fiancée never married and died in her 80s.
A few years ago, on a tour of First World War battlefields our guide, military historian Paul Read, suggested to Margaret that her uncle’s name might be found inscribed on a war memorial at Soissons, which later proved to be correct. On visiting we were able to find the memorial, very well maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and locate Harold Nelson’s name on it, along with those of nearly 4,000 other soldiers who were also listed as ‘missing’ in that area of France. We discovered that Soissons had been on the front line of the fighting during 1918.
At the memorial there was a register containing all these names with personal details of each soldier. There had been a regular stream of UK visitors to the memorial, including several from Yorkshire.
Margaret said of the visit:
“It was a ‘bitter sweet’ visit. My mother, 13 years old at the time of his death on May 28th 1918, was very close to her brother and the family had tried very hard, without success, to discover what had happened that day. She had received a letter from him dated 12th May 1918 commenting on her scholastic achievement and stating, ‘Just now I am… thoroughly contented with my lot’.
“At the memorial, 100 years to the day after him being reported ‘missing (presumed dead)’, I felt that I was saying ‘Goodbye and God bless you’ on her behalf.”