My Sweet Sweet Boys
Based on an original story by Matilda Morton (nee Coffell)
Written and retold by her granddaughter Mary Robertson (nee Morton)
In the mid 1950's my Grandmother, Matilda Morton (formerly known as Tilly Coffell), asked me to sit with her as she had a story to tell me. This story was a very special and important story, and she had chosen me, as her eldest grandchild, to entrust it to. I must promise to ensure the story would be carried forward by me when I eventually became an adult, I should pass it on to any children I may have and then on to my grandchildren, asking each of them in turn to make a solemn promise to retell the story to their children ensuring it passed down through each future generation of the family. This very special story, she began, was about her two young brothers, Alexander and Joseph Coffell. As we sat side by side on the sofa that grey autumn day in November, the only noise came from the occasional cracking of the coal fire as it lit up the darkening room, and Granny Morton began her story ........
In 1914, Alexander, or Alex as he was known to his family, joined the Army with his brother Joseph (Joe) Coffell looking for adventure abroad. Their lives and future had seemed destined to be labouring in one of the Ship Yards that lined the banks of the River Clyde in Govan, Glasgow, but as they stood at Govan Cross listening to the recruiting Sergeant shout out what an adventure it was all going to be, and how they could save the World, or at least their bit of the World (Govan) from the Germans invading it, this seemed like their golden opportunity for adventure, their one and only chance of escaping the drab greyness of the tenements in Govan, and so they jostled with each other and many of their pals as to who would be the first to sign on the dotted line. It was only later, as they climbed the stairs of their grim grey tenement in Harmony Row Govan that they became apprehensive about facing their mother, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Coffell and telling her that they had both signed up. They both felt their father, Alexander Coffell (senior), would understand, hadn't he joined the Army to fight in India when he was a young man? Didn't he speak of his many adventures to them over the years? Yes, they felt sure he would be proud of them, wouldn't he? They both stood staring at the dark stained wooden door before Alex, taking a deep breath, put his trembling hand on the shiny brass door handle and turned it. As they hesitantly walked towards the kitchenette, they could hear their own heartbeats and footsteps echo around the bare lobby like a Regiment already on their way to war.
In the kitchenette, that was the family's main living, cooking and eating area, their father Alex (senior) sat at the bare wooden kitchen table, the jacket of his Police Sergeant's uniform casually hanging from the back of his chair, as his wife slipped a freshly made pancake onto a plate in front of him. The aroma from the baking which usually made Joe's mouth water, suddenly made him feel like retching, the knot in his stomach tightening. Lizzie stopped, and on glancing up at both boys as they stood shoulder to shoulder said "So boys, what have you two been up to and why are you both looking so sheepish?"
Young Alex felt the blood drain from his face, and with a quick sideward glance at Joe saw his younger brother's shoulders sag, and his eyes stare intently downwards at the floor, as the enormity of what they had just committed themselves to slowly began to sink in.
"Well, Ma, ken how me and Alex were aye after adventures when we were weans, a bit like faither" he gestured towards his dad who was now staring directly at him over the rim of his cup. Young Alex took a deep breath and continued "Well, we were staunin doon at the Govan Cross and ..." His father's cup banged down onto the table and now even Joe's head was up, his eyes staring in the direction of this ominous sound. Their father's dark eyes glowered over at them "Whit have I said to you two about hinging around the Cross?" Tentatively Joe whispered "It wisnae Alex faither, it was me. I had heard there was a fellow at the cross, he was offering boys a shilling if they ...." Before he could say anymore Alex (senior) was on his feet and with one stride, held Joe's arm in a firm grip. "A shilling for whit? A SHILLING FOR WHIT?" He bellowed. Joe's voice was stuck in his throat, whilst his bowels and bladder felt that at any moment they may empty their contents onto the kitchen floor. Alex (junior) turned to face their father, Joe noticed in that moment that his brother seemed taller, his shoulders broader, his face had a determined look about it, it was the first time he realised how much Alex looked like their Father. Then in a strong deep voice Alex said "A shilling for signing on the dotted line." The blood seemed to drain from their Father's face as he took one lumbering step back, and in a croaky whisper asked "You signed up?" Alex (Junior) silently nodded his head. "Baith of yea?" the disbelief and sadness in his voice was obvious. In the back ground Joe could hear his mother's wail "Nooooo! Tell them Alex" she implored her husband, "Tell them they cannae dae this, their baith too young!" But Alex (Senior) was already reaching for his jacket, roughly pushing his arms through the sleeves as he headed out the door, pausing only to glance over at his wife and whisper in a husky emotion filled voice "Their baith fit young men, Lizzie and there's a War oan."
It was a grey day, as Joe and Alex lined up with the rest of the 'Pal's Brigade' for their farewell march through Govan, like many others they were wearing their best Jackets, both hand-downs from Faither and their Uncle as were the shirts, but mother had 'turned' the collars to hide the frayed edges and so the shirts felt and looked as good as new. The boys gave a wave of acknowledgement to neighbours, and pals as yet too young to sign on the dotted line, Joe shouted "Jimmy! Haw Jimmy Knox! see you next year when you join up!" There was excitement all around as Govanites thronged the pavement to give them a good send off. Even the Govan Weavers Society in their Aprons and Sashes had lined up to head the procession, holding aloft at the front of the 'parade' their famous 'Ram's heid' this somewhat gruesome 'trophy' sat regally aloft on its polished pole, and the Weavers were joined by the local Boys Brigade Band, both of which were was usually reserved for more Royal occasions, like the crowning of the Govan Fair Queen on the first Friday of each June. This all added to the carnival atmosphere as the throngs lined the pavement cheering and waving, except that is for the Mothers, whose ashen faces and darting tear filled eyes could be seen desperately scanning the lines of boys, each seeking out their own son or in Lizzie's case sons. Lizzie spotted first Joe and then Alex standing right beside him, she lifted her hand to wave, the sun peeped out from behind a dark cloud and cast a golden glow on her sons, she took comfort that this might be a good omen, but all too soon it clouded over and they were once again lost in the throng of young eager boys, high in spirit looking forward to their 'great adventure,' the cold hand of fear again clutched tightly at Lizzie's heart. She felt the panic rise within her as again she scanned the young, so very young faces, their names slipped from her lips Alex? Joe?
Lizzie's eyes continuously scanned the young eager faces, heart racing she whispered "Boys? Boys?" she just wanted to push her way through the crowds grab her boys hug them and kiss their faces all over as once she did when they were mere babies, but she could feel herself being dragged along by the throng, unable to free herself from this human tidal wave, she closed her eyes and prayed that this was all the stuff of nightmares, that she would eventually wake up and find her boys lying side by side in their bed. Oh dear God her sweet, sweet boys! She had lost sight of them, perhaps forever? Desperately, inside her head she screeched "PLEASE GOD! I swear I will do anything, anything you ask of me. Take ME God, strike me down dead, but please save my boys....." But even as she bargained and pleaded she knew already her boys were beyond her reach, beyond her horizon now heading for some distant foreign shore. Her body, now free of the human tsunami, buckled as darkness enveloped her leaving only the distant sounds of clattering boots and a brass bugle echo through the hard cobbles her head now rested on.
Time passed in a blur for all the mothers and their sons, the boys in the Pals Brigade realising all too soon that they had merely traded one type of grey drabness for another grey drabness that was infinitely worse, the only colour in their young lives now blood red, not even in their scariest nightmare could they ever have imagined such an 'adventure.' Whilst on the home front most mothers clung to the old idiom 'No news was good news' at least for them, not so the poor mother in the tenement across the street who had received 'The Telegram' or the woman screaming as she ran towards the River Clyde vowing she was going to throw herself in, such was her despair at losing her only child. Each long night Lizzie would sit at the grate knitting socks for the boys that may or may not ever reach them, but at least it kept them somehow closer and helped Lizzie feel she was doing something useful. Her husband Alex would sit staring at the black lead grate, occasionally lifting the iron poker to stir the coals up all the while puffing hard on his pipe. Both sitting waiting, always waiting, wanting to hear news of their sons, yet dreading any news that might come in the form of 'The Telegram.'
Both Alex and Lizzie took some comfort from their daughter Matilda's first child, a boy who had been named John (Jackie), he had brought a lightness and joy into their home as any healthy first born does, and he also helped keep alive the memory of the boys when they were that age, when it had been so easy for Lizzie and Alex to keep their sweet boys safe.It was a sunny day, as Lizzie stood at the sink, up to her elbows in greasy water as she finished off the breakfast dishes. They were taking Jackie to Elder park for a kick about with his ball to run off some of the energy the toddler had. Matilda was wrestling with the boisterous toddler as she attempted to change his soiled nappy, rushing to get rid of the smell that was quickly permeating the kitchenette. "In the name of God Tilly, whit are you feeding that boy on? He smells as strong as his grandad after a night on the booze!" They both laughed, drowning out the knock at the door. The knock was now louder and seemed more urgent. "Oh Ma could you answer it I'm " Tilly's voice tailed off. Lizzie grabbed the tea towel drying her hands as she made her way to the lobby. "Aye aye, I'll get it, it will probably be auld Jeanie wantin' a wee blether." It wasn't Jeanie, it was instead Lizzie's worst nightmare.
Her first instinct was to shut the door on the young boy's pale face, he must have done this same thing dozens of time and a stab of pity for him flashed into her head. He was saying something but she had seemingly gone deaf, her brain was preventing her acknowledge the question. "Mrs Coffell?" she tried to stop the involuntary nod of her head, whilst inside her brain screamed "Nooooooo!" A panicking thought flashed into her mind, that if she didn't accept this 'thing' he held out towards her, then he would perhaps just leave, visit another door? "Ma?" the concerned note in Tilly's voice penetrated her brain as she stared at the pale buff envelope in her hand. How had it got there, she didn't remember taking it from the boy, but already he was disappearing fast down the stairs, his feet clattering as he jumped the last two steps just as her boys always did. "Nooooooo" the silent scream continued swirling, swirling and echoing inside her head.
It was Tilly that guided her to a chair; they both sat staring at the envelope. "It's maybe no' as bad as we're thinking ma, it might just say the boys are oan their way hame." Lizzie glanced up at Tilly, seeking some comfort from her words, but could see her own fear reflected in Tilly's pale grey eyes. "Will I go doon tae the station and get faither?" Lizzie tried to think but a dark fog had settled inside her head "I'm not sure, aye maybe, naw wait! He's working at the Court this morning". Lizzie gulped "I'm sorry Hen, I've gotta dae this, I gave birth tae them so I'll be first tae know if, if ...." Lizzie couldn't say the words.
With her hands shaking Lizzie gazed at the name 'Coffell' written on the front of the small buff envelope, it slowly changed colour with each droplet that made its way down her cheeks, gathered speed in the deep crevices around her mouth before finally dripping, dripping, dripping from her chin onto 'The Telegram'. Lizzie's blurring eyes could just about make out the first few words 'We regret to inform you ...' Lizzie felt no need to read further, 'regret' said it all. The icy cold hand tightened around her heart, the room started spinning and Lizzie imagined she could hear the distant clattering of boots, somewhere a bugle was being played. Tilly was shouting "Ma is it Alex or Joe? Ma which boy?"
Which of her beautiful boys? What did it matter that she knew not the name, in this moment of time, they were the same person 'Her dead son' no matter the name on the Telegram. The lost was unsurmountable, the grief could be no greater, this son, her sweet boy was not coming back.
Auld Jeannie held Lizzie wrapped tightly against her heaving bosom trying desperately to absorb some of Lizzie's agony "Lizzie, oh my God Lizzie Hen, whit can a say tae bring yea even a wee bit o' comfort?" Her grip around Lizzie tightened. "Listen, your Alex will be here soon, Tillys away tae the station tae find someone to get her Faither back frae the Court. Whit about a week cup of tea Hen?"
Even with the tap running into the kettle Lizzie could hear the rap on the door "Don't move Hen, I'll get it" an involuntary sob erupted deep inside Jeannie's chest as she made her way through the lobby. The door creaked loudly against its hinges seemingly reluctant to open, to reveal the caller. Lizzie could only just make out whispered voices and then Jeannie's cracking voice rose above the whispers "Naw son, it's obviously a mistake Mrs Coffell already got a Telegram." Slowly Lizzie arose from the table and shuffled towards the lobby, there was no mistake, she had known as soon as she received the first Telegram, she should wait the arrival of the second before reading her boys' names in 'The Telegrams. ' Just as her sweet boys had stood shoulder to shoulder in life, they now lay shoulder to shoulder in death.
From the Poem 'For the Fallen' by Robert Laurence Binyon
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
In Memory of
Private ALEXANDER COFFELL (No. 26183) aged 22 and his brother Private JOSEPH COFFELL (No. 26184) aged 32, sons of Alexander and Elizabeth Coffell, of 47 Harmony Row, Govan, both of the 16th (Glasgow Boy's Brigade) Battalion Highland Light Infantry who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916.