This is a story about how unexpectedly one morning I opened my email to be asked if I would moderate a comment on my blog Stepping into Eternity: Stories of my Family where I wrote about my uncle, Ian Innes-Sim. A Terry Joyce in England had written Hello, I am doing some research into Ian Innes-Sim as he was recorded as being part of the 2nd Rayleigh Scouts. Can you help? I said I could, we exchanged emails and out of that exchange comes this blog.
Terry’s researches revealed that as a scout in May 1937, at almost fifteen, my uncle was part of a three man team that won the Local Junior Marathon. Later in July of that year he was a Patrol Leader who went to the World Jubilee in Holland where he would have seen Robert Baden-Powell give his farewell speech. Then in July of 1939 he joined the SS Test Bank as an apprentice marine engineer, following in his father’s profession, at the start perhaps of hopefully a good life. Barely two months later in September of that same year World War 2 was declared, and three and half years after that in January 1943 my uncle, as an apprentice in the Merchant Marine, died at the age of twenty when the ship he was on, the Oakbank on voyage in the south Atlantic, was torpedoed and sunk. He and the captain were rescued by the U-boat that sank them, but both died when that vessel was itself sunk by the Allied forces. I am very sure the shock of my uncle’s death began the slow unwinding leading to my grandmother’s own death five years later. I do know from my mother how very proud she was of her son’s scouting achievements. He has no known grave and I only have one photograph of him, possibly taken when he joined the Merchant Marine and which is attached.
I sent a copy of this picture to Terry, and he replied with an image of the logbook from the 2nd Rayleigh Scouts from 1924 -1944 recording the names of the scouts who fell in action during WW2. It was a simple typewritten list of nine names, six from the RAF, one from the Army, another from the Fleet Air Arm and my uncle from the Merchant navy. There is a note written on the bottom of the page in green ink: ‘They were strong & beautiful in their lives and are an everlasting example to us.’ Terry had also sent the link to a YouTube video of the jamboree in 1937 and considering what was to happen, it’s poignant to watch. Who knows what the fate was of so many of those young men in the film, my uncle among them? My uncle is commemorated on Tower Hill Memorial, which is maintained in perpetuity, as it says, by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. How many of his fellow scouts’ names ended up on memorials around the world as well?
While I write this story of loss and grief, I think of a news item I saw just a few days ago, young men in Ukraine manning checkpoints against the Russian invasion. They were university students, like my uncle just twenty or in their late teens, given three days training, and then sent with a gun to protect the capital, the nation. There was other reports of young Ukrainian men and women, also new soldiers, getting married in the midst of war in their uniforms, hugging each other before fighting. According to news reports, many of the soldiers in the Russian army are conscripts, young men also, some with only a few months training, who did not know where they were being sent or who they were expected to fight and kill. I think of a Ukrainian woman giving sunflower seeds to one of these young men so when he died the bright yellow flowers might grow from his body in the nation’s soil. I think also of the maternity hospital in Mariupol bombed, a pregnant woman rescued and taken to another hospital where both she and her child died. She had begged the doctors to save her child’s life.
William Blake wrote in one of his poems, “The strongest poison ever known came from Caesar’s laurel crown.” Everything that is happening in Ukraine now is proof of that line. When both the young Ukrainian or the Russians soldiers die in combat, it’s likely their names will end up on memorials in their countries just as my uncle’s and certainly numbers of his fellow scouts did after WW2. When the civilians die in the shelling, just as the soldiers have died fighting, it will again be for the delusions of power and egotism of leaders like Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and his inner circle. Again it will be everyone else who will suffer the ongoing grief. I am asking myself why the delusions of men like Putin have to cost so much in other people’s lives, not just once but over the generations. Who will be accountable for this and why is it still happening now, why it can’t be stopped? The best place to ask these questions would be in the criminal court in The Hague, should Putin and his inner circle ever end up there to answer for their war crimes.