Like a cricket sweater left behind after the issue has long been settled, made sodden by the drenching rain, barely recognizable from a distance and mistaken for some gull, heavy and awkward to retrieve, fit only for Lost Property – the body lay mortally wounded, a dead weight, disformed and dysfunctional in Polygon Wood at the northern hinge of the Ypres Salient.
It was Wednesday, November 11th 1914 and the seventeenth day in the field without relief for the 5th Field Company, Royal Engineers. The German barrage had ceased at 6.30am and hand to hand fighting had been going on since then.
At ten o’clock the Company had been moved further up to its position on the edge of the Wood defending the flank of the 1st King’sLiverpool. They were part of a motley collection of scratch reserves put together in desperation to plug a gap opened up the Germans who were, had they realised it, that one thin line away from breaking through to the vital supply depots of the Channel ports.
For the few hundreds fighting along this tiny front two or three miles east of Ypres it was simply defend or die, and, signalling for reserves, their Lieutenant had been shot.
Bullets wove a deadly mantle across the saturated ground, yet Sappers Farnfield and Matthews, like all their comrades haggard from days without sleep and food, unshaven, unwashed, in little more than rags and plastered with the mud of Flanders, defied the lethal fire to bring their leader back to the disused trench that they continued to defend against continuous attack from the Prussian Guard.
There they had lain him among their other lost and found, their acting ‘captain’ who, stepping in for their dead major and a dead captain, had led them for much of that time with quiet courage, his example inspiring them to transform themselves without complaint or disquiet from engineers into front-line bayonet-fixed, fighting infantry, burying their dead each night.
As an excited thirteen year old, with bat over his shoulder he had run eagerly to the eccentrically shaped field off Guthrie Road, there to take on North Town House.
He had tossed for innings, won, unhesitatingly claimed the right to bat and proudly opened for Clarke at 3.30 pm.
That innings too had involved him in a piece of remarkable endurance. By close of play at 6pm he was 200 not out. A timeless match, he continued the next day and the next and the next compiling the extraordinary total of 628 not out, the highest recorded at cricket.
Like his soldiering at 1st Ypres his innings was a mixture of fearless attack, extraordinary stamina, burning concentration, luck and, unlike 1stYpres, survival.
There must have been a deathless hush around the corner from the Close those evenings when on a bumpy pitch in a blinding light he went passed Edmund Tylecote’s previous record score of 404 and moved on to a fifth and then a sixth hundred.
In what remained of his life, did he feel the burden of this celebrity which had come to him so young?
Collins later played at a reasonable level of army cricket. But who can imagine what that burden must have been like every time he strode to the wicket; the expectation, the reputation; on someone who never seemed to seek the limelight?
Did he bear it as he bore the responsibility of that last command?
For he died in that trench an hour after being brought in out of the rain and into what ever shelter his men could have made for their ‘captain’ – a last pavilion.
The weight of the attack was never again as heavy. That battle within a battle within a war was won … or more precisely, not lost. The line held and quickly extended northwards in the race to the sea.
They buried him on the night of the 12th in Polygon Wood.
The carnage would continue as a privileged and incompetent elite willingly and wilfully sacrificed the lives of millions under their inept command – lions led by donkeys as the German Hoffman described it.
The ground that AEJ Collins was buried in would be fought over time and again in the next four years, destroying his grave, blowing his remains to smitherines.
The game would never be quite the same.
The painting is by W.B.Wollen and shows the Ox and Bucks on the 11th. They, like Collins’ 5th Field Company, had been placed under the command of Col C.B.Westmacott.