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Remembrance Day: Hornchurch woman who wrote moving poem for soldier father

PUBLISHED: 17:00 06 November 2013

May Fenn, 83, at her Hornchurch home

May Fenn, 83, at her Hornchurch home

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The impact of war on soldiers and their families is well understood by one Hornchurch woman, who wrote her father a poem inspired by his First World War experiences.

May (back right) with brother Thomas Vincent Hogben (back left), mother Jane Joyce (left) and father Thomas James Hogben (right), in 1941May (back right) with brother Thomas Vincent Hogben (back left), mother Jane Joyce (left) and father Thomas James Hogben (right), in 1941

May Fenn, 83, of Fairkytes Avenue, wrote the verse for her father Thomas James Hogben, who found the transition back to “ordinary” life difficult and was haunted by the sorrow of mothers who had lost their sons.

May’s poem, The Death of an Only Child, was written in the late 1940s and was never read by her father.

It explores the theme of the bereaved families and portrays the view that there is no death with honour on the battlefield.

She said: “My father was still a teenager when he fought in the trenches in World War One and, despite all his comrades dying around him, he came home unscathed.

The Death of an Only Child by May Fenn

“Death with honour” they called it,

As he lay down his life for the crown;

They gave him a silver medal

And the pledge of life-long renown.

“Death with honour” they called it

But what of his Mother’s plight?

Gone is her son forever

With never a kiss goodnight.

How easy it is for statesmen

To prate of the glory of death,

They don’t walk in the valley of shadows

And draw a last lingering breath.

The light of our life is darkened

But history will turn a new page,

And we will be left forgotten

To an empty and lonely old age.

“But he said the hardest part came afterwards when he returned home, the only one in his circle of friends to return. The anguish in the eyes of their parents when he was with his family became too hard to bear.

“Why you? Why not my son?” - he could feel their unspoken words every time they looked at him. At last he left home and moved away, no longer able to bear the guilt he felt at being the sole survivor.”

Thomas, who was born in 1900, served with the RAF during the Second World War. He was stationed at Hornchurch aerodrome as ground staff and “again saw all those very young men setting off to fight, knowing so many were destined never to return”.

He was later posted to the Middle East.

Other relatives of May’s suffered greatly from the events of the world wars.

Her brother, Thomas Vincent Hogben, was badly wounded in the D-Day landings, when he had just turned 18. Her grandmother, Jane Julia Joyce, camouflaged First World War trains which were needed to transport troops to the front.

“Unfortunately the danger of using arsenic in paint was not well known then so before the war ended she had died of arsenic poisoning,” said retired teacher May.

“[She was] another victim of the war.”

May, who is a widow and has two children, Jackie and Steven, did not know her father well.

He worked away from home regularly and, the year before the outbreak of war, she was attending one of the government’s “open air” schools.

Sadly, her family unit came to an end in the 1940s when her mother Jane Joyce, known as Joyce, died of autoimmune disease schleroderma and her father re-married in the Middle East. She never saw him again.

May added: “I remember him as a quiet man who would sit for long periods just thinking. All I know about his early life was told to me by my mother as we sat huddled together during the air raids. I think she did it to distract me.

“She said he had pretended he was older than he was in order to join up with his mates, only to see them die without him.”


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