Monday, 15 June 2015

Memoirs of farmer and World War I poet published

Bridport Press joint founder Margery Hookings has published the memoirs of her grandfather, a man who loved the land and saw the horrors of The Somme first-hand.

W. Percy Withers was an ordinary man who led a happy life as a tenant farmer in Somerset in the first half of the 20th century.

He was born in 1894 at Upper Milton Farm, near Wells, and his story touches on rural life in the Mendips at the turn of the century. He recalls life on the farm and his stories include the celebrated cave explorer Herbert Balch who lived nearby.

Like so many ‘ordinary’ men, Percy was caught up in extraordinary events when war broke out in 1914 and he reported for duty in Shepton Mallet on 6 August.

With the North Somerset Yeomanry, he fought on the dreadful battlefields of The Somme and lived to tell the tale, returning to England and settling first at Barton St David, near Somerton, before moving to Donyatt, near Ilminster, where he farmed at Cold Harbour and Pottery Farm. He died in 1970.

His memoirs, entitled Destination Unknown, have been published alongside some of his poems and family photographs.

Margery, a former local newspaper editor, said: “The book is intended first and foremost as a record of Percy’s life to give to his grandchildren. 

"He was a kind, gentle man with a love of words and a deep love for the countryside.

“These memoirs contain some fascinating snippets of social history, relating to farming and everyday life in rural England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the everyday story of what was meant to be the war to end all wars.”

The title of the book comes from one of Percy's poems, Destination Unknown, in which he imagined what his mother thought he might become in later life.

Percy was a prolific poet, writing on family matters, local stories, the countryside around him and the war he went through.

He wrote the following after being demobbed:

Where are you now, you North Somerset Yeomen?

Where are you now, you North Somerset Yeomen,
Who came, swift to answer your country’s appeal,
To pit your raw strength ’gainst the might of the foeman,
To give shot for shot, to oppose steel to steel?

You came, not for gain, for reward or for glory,
And little you heeded where duty’s path led;
You wrote your full page in our England’s proud story,
Thanked God for your victories, and mourned for your dead.

For some lie near Ypres, beneath the clay sleeping;
They suffered, they died, but no inch would they yield,
And dull leaden skies up above them are weeping
For them, as they lie ’neath the battle-scarred field.

And all up and down where the old trench-line wandered,
The plain wooden crosses their message proclaim;
Yet no man may say that their young lives were squandered –
They died for this England; they rest in their fame.

Where are you now, you North Somerset Yeomen,
Bred to the ploughtail, the desk or the mine?
You gave of your best, did your duty, and no men
Can beat your proud record, your glory outshine.

You fought and you died, you were wounded and shattered;
You stuck to it grimly, till Peace came at last,
And now, on the face of the earth you are scattered,
Till nothing remains but the ghosts of the past.

The ghosts of the past – in the mists of tradition,
The actors depart, but their exploits remain;
But still the old Regiment retains her position –
She’d do it, if need be, all over again!

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