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Run rabbit run

The soldier who told rabbits to run. SJ Dodgson MJoTA 2016 v10n2p0803

The second world war started on the last day of August 1939 when Germany attacked Poland by air, land, and sea. On that day, Dr Patience, my mother, was four days past her 24th birthday and in her last months of medical school in Northern Ireland. Dr Michael, my father, was six weeks shy of 20, and had just started his studies at St Thomas' Medical School in London. 

Over 4 years later, 1944 started with Dr Patience working in Paddington Hospital in London. After qualifying as a physician in January 1940, she had gone to work in hospitals in England's northern industrial city, Sheffield.

Dr Michael was back in London completing his medical training after St Thomas' Hospital had been bombed severely, and medical students temporarily moved elsewhere. 

Right after Dr Patience moved to London, she met Dr Michael in the cafeteria of a London hospital when he noticed Dr Patience was not using her sugar ration in her tea, and he asked if he could have it. She told me this when we were sitting at her rainbow Formica table, in the kitchen of the house in Australia that she was later taken from to die, 51 years later. Of course, we were drinking tea. Without sugar. I do not like sugar in tea, or coffee.

I have a letter from my father to my mother urging her to come to Norfolk for Easter 1944, and explaining he had found a flat for them both. They certainly wasted no time getting to know each other.

The lack of letters from then until Nov 1944, when they were planning their wedding, reflects a gap in their relationship. Dr Patience wanted Dr Michael to cool down. Probably even to go away. India would be good.

Meanwhile, unmanned bombs were falling on London, lobbed from occupied France, and armies from the US and the British Empire came together for the largest and most consequential assault in human history which started before dawn on June 6, 1944, D-Day.

D-Day changed everything. 

Dr Patience's 2 brothers were in the British military. Dr Leonard Uprichard was involved in building a runway in Africa, probably Nigeria, probably as an airforce medical officer; and Robert Uprichard was a naval officer with unneeded legal qualifications.

I never learned if Uncle Robert Uprichard landed in France on D-Day; he possibly did. I was told that 3 times during the long 6 years of the second world war, Dr Patience's parents were sent telegrams saying he was fished out of seas when his boat was sunk. Uncle Robert Uprichard died at home in Belfast at 80, after a long career that included being Attorney General of Antrim and Armagh, and a happy marriage that made him an in-law to Baron Faulkner, the final prime minister of Northern Ireland. Uncle Leonard Uprichard spent the last 35 years of his life in England, as a general medical practitioner in Leicester, also with a happy marriage.

Dr Michael's only sibling, Uncle Tony Dodgson, was 23 during D-Day, and he landed on a beach with the British Army and headed north through France. 

Dr Michael's cousin, Commando chaplain Maurice Wood landed on Juno Beach and immediately got to work assisting the wounded and the dying. Maurice, the only child of Hannah's sister Jane, led a dawn service of thanksgiving on June 7th above Juno Beach in Normandy, and died at 90 in Norfolk, after a long career that included being Bishop of Norwich and annual trips to Normandy for a repeat of the dawn service.

Dr Michael had 2 more cousins who were brothers. Geoffrey Dillon Thomas was institutionalized, I never understood why. The older brother Robert Dalzell Dillon Thomas was a lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards, riding on trucks from Naples towards Florence on D-Day. He was always known as Bob.

Dr Michael's 4 female cousins, all daughters of Kathleen, sister of my grandmother Hannah, all survived the war, all in exotic lands. 

After the British Army and allied forces liberated Rome after D-Day, Bob continued traveling north. Robert Dalzell Dillon Thomas was the only first cousin of either of my parents who never came home.  

From when he landed in Naples in February, when Bob was not shooting or being shot at, or traveling on an army truck, he was happily sending letters to his mother Rachel Dalzell Thomas, and father Meredith Dillon Thomas. Meredith was a teacher at Sherborne School, a senior teacher. He had a famous student, Alan Turing and also taught Dr Michael, who was a boarder at Sherborne School before starting his medical studies at the University of London.

Bob's letters were filled with reflections about Italy and the fields and rivers he knew and loved in Dorset. He wrote poems about Naples, about Salerno, about the seasons in Dorset, about soldiers who never came home, about Assisi. When he was in school, he had written a poem about a rabbit, which was published in the school magazine in 1941 and is posted below.

Bob spent the last day of his life so happy to be near Abrezzo, in Tuscany, near the river Arno. The German Army had been routed from Rome, and they were about to be routed from Florence. Bob was with his men in a village and he decided to look around a building to see if it was safe for his men. When he did not return, his subordinate found him with a bullet through his heart. Shot by a sniper. As a rabbit is shot to make a pie.

Bob died on Aug 3, 1944. One week later, in France, my Uncle Tony took bullets through his arm and torso, and never again walked and had bags for his liquid and solid waster. Uncle Tony lived another 40 years, and with his wife Beryl whom he married 15 years later, started the South England Film Society and ran a school for continental students wanting to learn English.

A month after that, Maurice Wood was with the Royal Navy commandos during the landing of landing at Walcheren in the Mediterranean and swam to shore and rescued some men. For that, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and became the highest decorated clergyman in the second world war.

Dr Michael received his orders to train in Norfolk in preparation for traveling as a medical officer with African troops to Burma, India, and finally, the country we now call Ghana. He understood his family needed reinforcements, and so he managed to convince Dr Patience to marry him, a decision she spent the next 50 years regretting. 

Bob lies in a grave in Italy, in Abrezzo. In a peaceful, gorgeous place. I hope a friendly rabbit lives near his grave and runs over it once in a while, as 2 rabbits who have made my garden their home. He has never been forgotten, not by me, not by his school, Sherborne Abbey, not by his parents as long as they lived. 

Every year, on August 3rd, Rachel put a memorial in the London newspaper The Times. Every year. The annual memorial stopped only when Rachel died and he had no immediate family members to remember him. The year after Bob was downed by a German sniper, Rachel put together a book of his poems and letters. In 2014, I was able to buy a copy from an English bookseller that had inside it letters Rachel wrote to other mothers who had lost sons. Bob loved art, he loved Dorset, he loved music, and he loved God. He was 22. 

Dr Michael and Dr Patience married in haste in Jan 1945, immediately before Dr Michael was shipped out for 18 months. To India. And Burma and finally, West Africa. 

By daily letters from boats, bush hospitals, everywhere the British Army Mail went, Dr Michael gave constant instructions to Dr Patience to keep his family together, get his post-war career going, take care of his mother and Uncle Tony in Sussex and go for rests in Dorset to the Sherborne Manor House, where Rachel and Meredith lived until 1949. A newspaper reported the day they moved out; the house is now occupied by the Sherborne Council.

No-one can replace a fallen son, nothing can repair a deep hole in the heart of a mother. But I am so glad Dr Patience visited Rachel. Dr Michael and Dr Patience named their first born child Robert. 

Rachel, like my grandmother Hannah, loved to draw and paint. The painting below is 2.5 by 2 feet, and was given to me by Maurice Wood. In 1985, when he was moving out of the palace that came with his job as Bishop of Norwich, I visited Norfolk for a day after coming to England in a night ferry after an International Biochemistry Conference in Amsterdam. During that trip, I stayed with Josephine Cook, daughter of Kathleen, and was shown the parsonage where Kathleen hosted her 3 sisters with their 5 sons. And the long curtains that had been part of Uncle Tony's stage performances when he was a budding actor and had legs that worked.

The painting is quiet, too quiet. Rachel signed it in 1962. It lacks life, no animals, no houses, no people. All activity seems to be in the water. Everything must be happening beyond the mountains, beyond the clouds. Without understanding Rachel or her great loss, I copied the painting in colored pencils in 1997. 

Bob, you grew not old as those that were left grow old. I am so terribly sad that you never again got to walk the banks of the Yeo, or went back to Rome, or got to Florence.

With fleeting footsteps rabbit run
Make haste to flee the farmer's gun
For if he hit thee thou wilt die
And find thy tomb a pastry pie.

RDD Thomas, 1941, 
The Shiburnian
There is tumult in the valley where the yellow Tiber flows
And shooting on the fertile slopes where the vine and olive grows:
The silent peace of the countryside
Is rent by the guns' deep roar
And the corn is crushed by the on-coming tide
Of cruel relentless war

Beyond these roofless farmsteads far famed Assisi stands,
That shrine of peace by man beloved throughout all Christian lands,
For there St Francis spent a life
Of praise to God above,
And prayer that man might banish strife
And learn the power of Love.

But men still fight their battles in the presence of the Lord
And have no time to worship, no mind to sheathe the sword,
Their selfish quarrels never cease
To plunge the world in war,
They hate:- yet hope for days of peace
When war shall be no more

RDD Thomas, Jul 1944
from The Notebook of a Lieutenant in the Italian Campaign
written on a hill near Perugia overlooking Assisi