A Christmas homecoming that never happened

A Christmas homecoming that never happened

Thomas Craig Christmas card2It is a rather special Christmas card.

It was sent from France to my grandThomas Craig in front of the first housemother by her brother Thomas and it is one of the few pieces of the past that paint a picture of their wartime story.

Thomas Craig is something of an enigma to me.

He was from Ballyboley in County Antrim, and brother of my grandmother, Agnes Hume.

When the First World War came along, Thomas, like so many Ulstermen, enlisted.

But he did not join an Irish Regiment or enlist in Belfast.

Instead he enlisted in Liverpool in October 1914 and joined the 1st Battalion of the Scots Guards.

Born in 1877, he was the oldest boy in the family of William John Craig and Isabella Houston. One brother had predeceased him by the outbreak of the War, being killed in an accident in Canada, and his older sister Ellen was in Argentina, having married a Kentucky rancher who moved south.

Thomas and his sister Agnes were in County Antrim in 1914.

One of the heirlooms which has survived in our family is a postcard which Thomas sent home in December that year, showing the squad which he was part of training in England.

Thomas Craig squadThe postcard would have doubtless been welcome to the young farmer’s wife in Ballycarry, County Antrim, but the message on the back would have been disappointing.

Thomas informed his sister that he was not one of the lucky ones who would be coming home for Christmas.

The Christmas card he sent has also been carefully preserved in the family. Perhaps it was sent that year, 1914, or maybe the following year.

For many of those who eagerly flocked to the Colours in 1914, the war was, ironically as it turned out, expected to be over by Christmas, the need for Christmas cards home not really anticipated.

But Thomas and hundreds of thousands like him would soon discover that the War was not conforming to hopes of an early victory. The men who went to the front found a stalemate, and conditions that were appalling and unimaginable to men from the green fields and hillsides of Ulster such as Thomas Craig.

Thomas was born in 1877 and the census returns for 1901 show that he was staying with his uncle, a schoolteacher, along with his brother Alexander. Both were listed as servants, suggesting they were helping their uncle and aunt run the farm.

Alexander later emigrated to Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, where the family also had connections. He would sadly die there in a mining accident a few years later.

Thomas, meanwhile, by 1911 was back in his family home, where the census places him with his parents and other siblings.

That year was also significant was it saw the marriage of his sister Sarah Agnes to my grandfather William Hume.

Sadly little else is known about Thomas. He was 37 years old when the war came in 1914 and his early enlistment may suggest he was an army reservist, which could also explain the enrolling in Liverpool.

The other details we know are from his military record.

He was wounded three times in total during the war. The third time it was a fatal wound. Thomas Craig died at Ypres on September 15, 1916 and is buried at the Bernafay Wood British Cemetery in France.

No one from the family has ever seen his grave.

And we do not know if he ever got home during his time of service.

Certainly not in December 1914 when he sent his card to his sister back in County Antrim.

Thomas was not one of the lucky ones in December 1914. Nor was he one of the lucky ones who would survive the Great War.

I treasure his medals, given to me some years ago now by an elderly relative.  One day I hope to visit Bernafay Wood and see his stone. To paraphrase John Hewitt in his poem The Covenanter’s Grave – which relates to an expedition to see an old family gravestone – we will have been a long time coming.

The card he sent is always in my mind around this time of year. It is a special Christmas card, a sad reminder of a lost generation and the human cost of war….