I was reminded this past week of the centenary of the passing of a man who I usually think of in November, the month of remembrance, poppies, services and parades. A man who is probably not as well known as he should be, but of whom I have written several times in the past. Harold Parry, Bloxwich’s own War Poet, who like so many others, made the ultimate sacrifice for king and country in the Great War of 1914-18. And that centenary is this Saturday, 6 May 2017.
Harold Parry (‘Hal’ to his friends), son of Alderman, mine engineer, colliery proprietor and landowner David Ebenezer Parry and Sarah Parry, of ‘Croxdene’, Bloxwich, was born on 13 December, 1896, one of twins.
After studying at a junior school in Bloxwich (probably the National School, High Street), Hal won a scholarship to Queen Mary’s Grammar School, Walsall, where he became an outstanding pupil, head of his House and captain of the school’s football and cricket teams, as well as a cadet officer. While studying there, he won the Queen’s Prize for History and in 1915 won an Open History Scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford.
Hal volunteered for army service in January 1916, being commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and after training at Rugeley he transferred to the 17th Battalion, The King’s Royal Rifle Corps, on the front line in France.
Before the war, Parry had been a prolific writer of poetry. The bitter experiences of the trenches, at the Somme and in Belgium, soon made him turn again, this time for relief, to poetry, both reading and writing, and letters home to family and friends. He could express himself clearly in both prose and verse, and his writings are important in that they reveal what the young men who died in “the war to end all wars” thought about their experiences in that terrible conflict.
One of his shortest poems, ‘Tommy’s Dwelling’, written in the field, tells of the ever-present water and mud which was the curse of the trenches:
I come from trenches deep in slime,
Soft slime so sweet and yellow,
And rumble down the steps in time
To souse “some shivering fellow”.
I trickle in and trickle out
Of every nook and corner,
And, rushing like some waterspout,
Make many a rat a mourner.
I gather in from near and far
A thousand brooklets swelling,
And laugh aloud a great “Ha, ha!”
To flood poor Tommy’s dwelling.
Just two days after a battle, on 14 October 1916 Hal wrote to his sister’s friend Isabel “The average Fritz is as sick at heart over all this destruction as we are. We are preached a doctrine of frightfulness, and yet is it not sufficiently sad to think when you come across an unburied dead German, perhaps this day his wife and children mourn for him, and in the future can know neither peace nor comfort? I must confess it distresses me beyond measure, for I am not a soldier at heart.”
“The real evil in this conflict is not of the individual so much as of the powers that be. If these dignitaries could only be sat in the trenches for a wee short space, and made to carry heavy coils of wire for long distances up long communication trenches – blasted by the incessant force of the guns, I could guarantee that their war would not last longer than the time to fix up provisional peace terms. Let Dot read this letter, but not my mother or father, it would make them grieve and I don’t want that.”
Sadly, like so many soldiers Hal was fated to die young, killed in action on 6 May, 1917 by a German shell at Ypres, in Flanders, while moving from his billet to safer quarters in the cellars nearby. He was just twenty years old. Writing to Hal’s father, his commanding officer said “He was a splendid youngster, and a most capable and keen officer, much loved by all. Had he been spared I am sure he would have made a great name for himself as a soldier.”
Instead of making his name as a soldier, in the decades following his death Harold Parry instead become known to posterity as a war poet. A posthumous volume of letters and poems compiled by G.P. Dennis ‘In Memoriam: Harold Parry’ was published, showing he was exceptionally gifted for such a young man. The letters show above all his extreme cheerfulness and loyalty, even in the face of danger and death. Some of his poems are also published in ‘Songs from the Heart of England’, an anthology of Walsall poetry edited by Alfred Moss with a foreword by Jerome K. Jerome.
G.P. Dennis wrote of him “Harold Parry was no saint, he had with the rest of us his faults and failings and annoyingnesses; but that the evil in him was less than most, and that he fought it harder, that the good in him was greater, and that he used it better – of these things his friends are certain. He always tried to do what he believed was right: what more can a good man do?”
Such is the measure of the man. His good name and his words live after him, and he is not forgotten.
Harold Parry is buried at Vlamertinghe Military Cemetery, West Flanders, Belgium. His headstone bears the inscription “Death is the Gate To the High Road of Life And Love is the Way (Harold Parry).”
Its twin, rather more careworn after a century, honours his name in Field Road Cemetery, Bloxwich.
I usually go there to ponder on the life of a Bloxwich man and the folly of war in cold November. This time around, in the sunlit spring, I have visited that small, forgotten shrine of remembrance and placed flowers for the centenary of his passing. I placed them today. Perhaps others may do the same tomorrow, and think on the apt words of another poet, Mary Elizabeth Frye.
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
Ironically, although Harold Parry has a monument at Bloxwich, and there are a number of similar stones there, he is not listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s list for Bloxwich Cemetery, he is listed at Vlamertinghe. But there are also many men who are listed as buried here, via this link, and they are all worthy of remembrance.
Lest we forget