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Run rabbit, run

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

In the summer of 2003 I sat with Halina and she told me she was in Warsaw on the last day of August in 1939, when German forces were moving into place to capture Poland the next morning. Halina had lived in a pink house at the end of my street forty years, I had lived there twenty, and only in the last year of her life did I know she existed, and she told me her story that overlapped those of other stories I learned about my parents who were young adults like Halina, preparing for professional careers.

That last day of August in 1939, when Germany was getting ready to attack Poland by air, land, and sea, Dr Patience, my mother, was five days past her twenty-fourth birthday and in her last months of university in Northern Ireland. Dr Michael, my father, was six weeks shy of twenty, and had just started his studies at St Thomas' Hospital in London. The weather outlook for the British Isles for August 31st was mostly "rather warm". For the next day, the outlook was "rather unsettled". Indeed.

Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, sucking young adults all over Europe into fighting a war they had not started. They were expected to drop everything they were doing to defend Britain and liberate other nations the German military machine had taken over while British politicians debated and Germany was overtaken by genocidal mania.

Year of deprivation followed across Europe in nations attacked by the Wehrmacht, which included the Heer (German Army), the Kriegsmarine (German Navy), and the Luftwaffe (German Airforce). The Luftwaffe was the most successful in attacking Britain; bombing of England continued from 1940 and had not stopped by 1944 when Dr Patience moved from working in Sheffield hospitals to Paddington Hospital in London.

The Luftwaffe did a good job in bombing St Thomas' Hospital in 1940, so good that training for health professionals was moved elsewhere. By 1944, Dr Michael was back in London,  I am not sure where - St Thomas's bombed buildings were still bombed - and was completing his  first university degree while getting ready to be part of the Auxiliary Medical Corps wherever the King and military command thought he would be most useful. 

Soon after Dr Patience arrived in London, she met Dr Michael in the cafeteria of a London hospital. Dr Michael noticed that Dr Patience was not using her sugar ration in her tea, and he asked if he could have it. My existence started with a discussion of sugar, with my mother giving away her sugar to a tall dark stranger because he asked for it.

Dr Patience told me this one afternoon when when we were avoiding the afternoon sun, sitting at her rainbow Formica table in the kitchen of the house in Australia that she was later taken from to die, 51 years after meeting Dr Michael. Of course we were drinking tea. Without sugar. I have never liked sugar in tea, and certainly not in coffee. Yuk.

I have a letter from Dr Michael to Dr Patience, urging her to come to Norfolk for Easter 1944, and explaining he had found a flat for them both. Dr Patience was twenty-eight and had been working as a physician four years. Dr Michael was twenty-five and not yet graduated. That decisiveness when he wanted something; he had that all the rest of his life. I never once heard him raise his voice. In another lifetime he could have done well.

The lack of letters between Dr Michael and Dr Patience from April 1944 until October 1944, when they were planning their wedding, reflects a gap in their relationship. And also the fact that my father had a girlfriend, my Uncle Tony told me years later. Helen Wells. I wonder what happened to her after Dr Michael told her he was getting married to Dr Patience.

Before October, when Dr Patience was swatting away Dr Michael, unmanned bombs kept dropping on London after being lobbed from occupied France, and laws against food waste were being strictly enforced. Dr Patience wanted Dr Michael to cool down. Probably to go away. India would be good.

Meanwhile, armies from the US and all over 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, for everyone caught in this global tragedy.

Dr Patience's two siblings were in the British military. Dr Leonard Uprichard was involved in building a runway in Africa, probably Nigeria, probably as an air force medical officer; and Robert Uprichard was a very cheerful naval officer already qualified to be a top-flight Belfast lawyer.

I never learned if Uncle Robert landed in France on or after D-Day; he possibly did. I was told that three times during the long six 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 died at home in Belfast at eighty, after a long career that included being Attorney General of Antrim and Armagh, and a happy marriage that produced four adventurous children, and made him an in-law to the final prime minister of Northern Ireland. Having survived three boat sinkings, I am guessing he was a really good swimmer, and spending the war in really dangerous places prepared him perfectly for being the top law officer in Belfast during the Troubles. My mother adored him, they were close in age and had lived together in their parents' house in Belfast during their university years.

Uncle Leonard Uprichard, the eldest sibling, did not land on Normandy, either on D-Day or later. His excitement had been between global wars, jumping on a boat to Canada at eighteen before returning to Belfast to university, one year ahead of Dr Patience who was five years younger. Uncle Leonard spent the years after his war service happily in England with his general medical practice in Leicester, his devoted wife and his two brilliant children.

Dr Michael's only sibling, Uncle Tony Dodgson, was twenty three during D-Day. His regiment, the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, landed on a beach at the end of July, and headed north through France. Likely he was in a cavalry regiment, as had been his father, because cavalry regiments had less fatalities than foot regiments. I am sure this was a calculation of his grandmother, who lost nine nephews during the 1914-1918 war, while both her children survived battles. All mothers and grandmothers could do was calculate odds, powerless at stopping the need to fight that gripped Europe during the twentieth century.

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 two more cousins who were brothers. Geoffrey Richard 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. He was twenty-one when he landed with the British Army in February 1944, he was riding on trucks from Naples towards Florence on D-Day. He was always known as Bob.

Dr Michael's older three of four female cousins, all daughters of Hannah's sister Kathleen, were all in uniform in dangerous places, all survived the war, all in exotic lands. The fourth cousin was too young to be conscripted. Age and infirmity is always the best predictor of surviving war, unless bombs are dropped.

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. 

The mother of Geoff and Bob was Rachel, the youngest of four sisters who all survived the turn of the twentieth century, and the first and second global wars. Rachel was born on April Fool's Day in 1895; seven months later her father was dead and her mother a widow with five daughters and a son. One daughter died in a boarding school before their mother remarried a widower with two small boys. By 1914, two boys were dead, and in 1916 the last boy, who was by then a young man, was killed on the battle field. The deaths in the first global war included cousins, and a first husband. Somehow all four sisters went about their lives, married and produced between them the nine children described above, of whom seven were ordered to join the war effort.

Bob's father was Meredith Dillon Thomas is remembered today as a teacher of computer scientist and code-breaker Alan Turing and of the spy novelist John Le Carre. They, as well as Bob and Dr Michael, were students at a boarding school in Dorset founded by King Edward VII so that boys could get a good Protestant education. What is remarkable is that Meredith had been a prisoner of war, captured during Operation Michael in 1918 and released in December 1918. Meredith gave the Victory in Europe speech in May 1945, during which he exhorted the boys of Sherborne to do the jobs that the dead left behind, but never once mentioned that he had lost his son Bob, or had been part of the first global war.

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, and father Meredith.

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, he carried bags for his liquid and solid waste in his wheelchair, and in his hand-controlled car. He loved driving his car to the pub and to church. After the bullets caught him, 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