1 July 1916, 7:29 AM – opening day of the Battle of the Somme, Western Front, World War I
The bone-jarring artillery fire that had been shaking the earth, night and day, in a deafening maelstrom of fire, shell fragments, blood and bone – suddenly stopped and an eerie silence fell across the smouldering carcass of No Man’s Land, littered with craters and shattered barbed wire. Stark against the sky was the ‘Danger Tree’, a splintered tree trunk where the regiment was to gather after going over the top.
The Commanding Officer, deathly pale, cleared his throat and shouted down the line of the trench: “Remember what I have told you. You are the finest young men I have ever served with. Today, we shall fight and die together for everything we hold dear. Remember your loved ones and remember how proud I am… how very proud I am… of you all. May God be with you”.
Waiting for the whistle to sound, James Ball, 21 years old, clutched to his chest his favourite photograph of his wife, Magdalene, who he had married in London just one week before being deployed to France. He kissed it once and put it in his breast pocket where it shook beside his feverishly pounding heart. His lips trembled as he felt his bladder release. As the urine coursed down his legs, for the first time in his life, he prayed – and he prayed that he would live to see Magdalene again – even if only one more time before dying.
At exactly 7:30 AM, the whistle blew and he pushed himself up over the lip of the trench and out into the inferno of No Man’s Land. The men to each side of him were instantly cut down in a storm of machinegun fire. As he ran, the earth churned, dizzyingly, as shell holes appeared out of nowhere, spewing clods of burning earth and white-hot shards of metal. The sky was black with plumes of hideous, oily smoke. Relentless machinegun fire raked up and down the columns of men and hundreds of eviscerated corpses piled up within seconds, hanging grotesquely in the jungle of barbed wire. Nearing the Danger Tree, he slipped and fell face first into a puddle of bowels. As he looked up, he saw one of his friends running on the stumps of his blown off legs just before collapsing. He got up and continued running. Just a few yards before reaching the shelter beside the Danger Tree, the air in front of him exploded, he felt himself being lifted high up off the ground and everything went black.
11 July 1916 – Ball residence, London
Magdalene Ball, three months pregnant, was drinking watery tea when the doorbell to their small apartment rang. Fear leapt in her heart – a fear that was confirmed when she opened the door to see the downcast telegram delivery boy standing in front of her.
“Telegram for you ma’am”, he said quietly before turning on his heel and walking away quickly.
Back inside, she sat in front of the empty hearth and, with trembling hands, opened the telegram:
Madam, it is my painful duty to inform you that a report has this day been received from the War Office notifying the death of 945362 Corporal James Ball, West Essex Regiment which occurred on 1st of July 1916 and I am to express to you the sympathy and regret of the Army Council at your loss. The cause of death was Killed in Action. We further regret that we are unable to return Corporal Ball’s remains as they have not been found. However, we have credible sources who witnessed Corporal Ball’s death on the battlefield. Any application you may wish to make regarding this notice should be addressed to The Secretary, War Office, Whitehall, London SW.
She fell to her knees, crushing the telegram in her hand, and screamed into the carpet “No!!! James!!! No!!!”
For the next 70 years Magdalene Ball traveled to France every 1 July and, with a searching gaze, wandered the battlefield around Beaumont-Hamel. For hours she would walk through the overgrown craters and trench fortifications. She found it hard to imagine that such a beautiful, peaceful place had been the site of one of the most horrific and bloody battles in human history. Every year, as the sun went down over Beaumont-Hamel she would place a rose close to where the Danger Tree had once stood with a simple note attached: “James, please come home”.
3 July 1986 – Ball residence, London
Heather Ball, daughter of Magdalene and James Ball, coughed lightly and addressed the small group of friends and family who had gathered in the apartment to express their condolences:
“Thank you all for coming. It means so very much to me. The loss of my mother is terribly hard for me – she brought me up alone after Daddy died in the Great War and I couldn’t have asked for a greater mother. She lived a long and productive life and would do anything for anyone. My only regret is that she spent so much of her life alone in this apartment and refused to re-marry. Still, she never complained and I’m so grateful that she died peacefully in her sleep. When I found her, she had a beautiful smile on her face. Next to her head on the pillow was a rose. None of us have any idea where it came from”.