Myth of the Sniper’s Bullet

In honor of the 101th Anniversary of the Armistice, I’m posting this story that I wrote after visiting my great-grandfather’s grave at the Somme in France. The story is part of a collection of my stories and vignettes in Pastel & Pen: Travels in Europe, now available in Print and Ebook editions. The book is a “non-collaborative” collaboration that pairs my writing with a collection of pastels done over 27 years by artist Gregg Simpson.

In Pastel & Pen, the piece Myth of the Sniper’s Bullet is paired with a pastel drawing called Schism.

My grandmother told me that she fainted the day she heard her father was killed at the Somme in 1916. She was ten years old. The official cause of death? A sniper’s bullet.

In later years, I learned that “sniper’s bullet” was the cause of death used ubiquitously to salve the grief of families with the comforting image of loved ones shot cleanly through the heart, dying instantly in a blaze of patriotic glory for the cause of freedom.

The reality? Most men died with dirt-coated fingers gripping trench walls with the last ounces of their strength, crying, wailing for mothers and wives and sweethearts, the bullets and shrapnel shredding them, sometimes killing them—but more often not, at least not right away. They died of sepsis and disease and fear hours, days, weeks later on filthy stretchers to the sound of other men’s screams. I will never know if my great-grandfather died instantly like they said, or slowly, drowning in his own blood, poisoned by gas, wailing for help that never came, calling out for my great-grandmother as the life drained from him into the mud of the trenches.

On a drive from Paris north to the Netherlands, a short detour takes us into the battlefields of the Somme where my great-grandfather Ernest Seaton is buried. I know a gravestone exists—my great-grandmother had visited it decades earlier, and my mother and brother had visited two years earlier. It is my turn now. Armed with the coordinates of the graveyard, we follow the GPS from the freeway into a network of small roads that take us over green rolling hills and through cute villages—storybook land. Massive white clouds bloom from the undulating horizon into a clear sky—a 360-degree vista of innocence-washed nature. I cannot believe that the Battle of the Somme—the cruelest, bloodiest battle in modern history—was fought under a similar sky across the same green fields that were transformed into red and black seas of despair.

It doesn’t take long for history to rear itself in the form of military cemeteries lining the small roads leading to the tiny town of Avuely where my great-grandfather lies. Signs direct us to the British, Commonwealth, and French cemeteries. I don’t see any signs to German cemeteries which I find odd. They must be buried somewhere. We wind deeper and deeper into countryside that from July 1 to November 18, 1916 hosted a battle in which three million men fought. One in three combatants—one million men—died or were wounded.

After a few wrong turns and some circle-backs, we find the tiny cemetery where my great-grandfather was laid to rest 101 years earlier—a pristine body with just one sniper’s bullet lodged in his heart. The small graveyard holds the remains of 589 men—most of them very, very young. I pace up a slight incline from Row A at the front to Row G and then start a slow walk alongside the Row G graves. The names scroll by—Foster, McFall, Hayes, Redmond—all British and all appallingly young – 19, 18, 18, 21, 18, 22, 17 … Grave after grave, all identical, each one a heartbreak for the people left alive back home.

Thirty names along, I come to Ernest Harry Seaton, 2nd Corporal of the Canadian Engineers, died Monday, August 21, 1916, age 32. The inscription reads Son of John and Mary Seaton, of Crown St., Peterborough, England, husband of Bessie M. Seaton, of 64, Manchester Road, Mossley, Manchester, England.

The grave doesn’t record the names of my grandmother, Helen, and her three siblings, Olive, Ruby, and Jack. The grave also doesn’t record the 88 more years my grandmother lived thinking of that day in late August of 1916 when the message came from the War Office and her world fell apart. There is no record in a battlefield cemetery of my grandmother’s return to Canada from England in the 1920s, of how she met my grandfather, produced my mother, and in her later years made lunch every day for my brother and me, and in even later years held three squirming greatgrandchildren. She had a full, long life and yet even toward the end of it, she still talked about her father, of how she was his favorite child, of how he’d gone off to war from Canada when he could have stayed home. He was almost twice the age of the other men buried alongside him. He should have stayed home and taken care of his wife and four children on the edge of the North American continent.

I place my palm on the plain white headstone that marks my great-grandfather’s share of the jumbled bones interred below the clipped green grass. I like to think he knows that his 61-year-old great-granddaughter cares enough to seek out his resting place and remember him.

I walk back along the row to the edge of the cemetery again past the gravestones of men who were little more than children —18, 19, 17, 20, 22, 18, 19… Few of them had been old enough to leave behind children. Few would be visited a century later by a great-granddaughter. That was even sadder.

We take what comfort we can when surrounded by the proof of violent death and so I take comfort in the one thing that Earnest Seaton did leave behind—his own continuance.


About the artwork:  Gregg Simpson describes Schism as a work in the tradition of lyric abstraction where the abstraction is based on, or subtly reveals, figurative forms or hints at landscape. The piece reminded me of the fractured landscape of the Somme—so tranquil now, but the scene of so much agony 100 years ago.

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