Friday, January 23, 2015

I Regret to Inform You

Picture this. You're a Mom and your son is somewhere on the Western Front. People were just beginning to get used to the postings in the local newspapers and billboards listing the war casualties. The realities of war were beginning strike close to home. The pride, the cheering and flag-waving was giving way to fear, shock, and grief.

Such was the scene at the little cottage home at 10 Isle Street in the quiet river town of Newmilns in Ayrshire, Scotland. Imagine Great Gramma Dolan getting this telegram delivered to her door on a summer day in June! Can you imagine how hard those first words hit: "I regret to inform you ...." - then you see the name of your boy - and then what? Was their relief (of some strange sort) when you read the words "missing" rather then the dreaded "killed in action." 

I've been to Newmilns. My Dad and I walked down Isle Street together. We knocked on the door of the cottage at 10 Isle Street that's there now (the old ones were torn down long ago.) Try to imagine. Put yourself there. Mrs. W.J, (Augusta) Dolan was a tough lady and had been through a lot in life already. Now this.

We don't know when the second telegram came - how long they had to wait for some word. I try to think of what that was like too. But what a relief to learn that they found Ejner after all (they likely would have called him by his Swedish name. I remember Gramma calling him that when I was a little boy.) It doesn't take too much imagination to gauge the mood and guess at the conversation that day. "Where's Le Treport? (There was no "google maps!) What do they mean contusions and shock? Is he okay?" Were the younger brothers, Bill, Harry, and Joe wide-eyed and wondering? Was young Lily crying? And the old soldier Dad, William James - what did he say? Did the neighbors and community rally around the family? Don't you wonder? I do, but maybe that's just me.

So what happened? No one really know for sure, but this much we do know. The 2nd Battle of Ypres was technically over, but the war was still going on - patrols, sniping, repairing and replacing barbed wire. And there was the shelling! You could hear it coming. They had names for it - a "blind pig", a "daisy cutter", and the dreaded "whizz-bang." The trenches had its own language and a somewhat morbid sense of humor. But there was really nothing much you could do, just get in your "cubby hole" and wait it out. All you could really do is endure "the morning hour of hate" as they called it.

Soldiers in their trench "cubby holes"
I have been told it was a direct hit. All of a sudden all of those around him were dead or buried. They called it "contusions and shock." Gramma Dolan told me that Grampa "went out of his mind." Whether he ran off or got led off by someone else, I don't know. Maybe they thought he was dead, blown to bits or buried in the mess left behind by the shell. At any rate, when they counted heads, Private Dolan was no where to be found. It didn't take too long, it would seem, because on the same day the second telegram was sent to Isle Street with the news that Grampa was at an aid station. He was a mess, but he was alive.

Grampa Dolan Soon After Arriving at Hospital in England
One more telegram arrived at the Dolan Isle Street home before long. They spelled the address wrong, and the official wording was different. But it was good news this time. Instead of "I regret to inform you" it began "I beg to inform you."  The information was that Grampa had been admitted to Lord Derby War Hospital in Warrington, England. To greet him and countless wounded warriors like him was a hospital staff that included Elizabeth "Bessie" Yates. The future Mrs. E. Dolan would take it from there.


  1. Very interesting!

  2. Wow. I try to picture it, and I can't. The environment on the Western Front must have been horrific. The environment at home waiting & wondering... also horrific. The story gives me chills. And it's amazing that Grandpa survived so much!! And... that was just one little unit in a very large, very long war. LOTS of other individuals and families experienced these same horrors.