To Thread - Forum Home

The Mudcat Café TM
21 messages

Cornwall UK WWII deserter query

16 Apr 03 - 04:10 AM (#934542)
Subject: Anyone know this story?
From: Steve Parkes

Back in the seventies Barrie Roberts wrote a song about a deserter (which I will post here if I manage to find the words).

This is the story. All the men in a Cornish village are called up (drafted) for the war. One day a young man of fighting age turns up, but not in uniform. He helps out around the village with all the "men's" jobs (no PC then!). Some time later the Military Police turn up and arrest him. He escapes into the woods, but is cornered against a bluff next to the river Tamar, which is swollen by winter rain. He dives into the river and tries to swim for the other side, but is swept away and drowned. He is buried in a charity grave as a deserter.

I seem to recall Barrie telling me his sister was trying to get him reburied without the "deserter" label, and that was what inspired him to write the song.

Can anyone add to this?


17 Apr 03 - 04:12 AM (#935266)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: alanabit

I am refreshing this, 'cos I want to know the answer too.
Going off the subject a bit, I think there must have been a POW camp in Cornwall, because I know of one family which was started when a former POW remained after the war and married a local maid. (It's Cornwall - so I can say "maid").

17 Apr 03 - 05:23 AM (#935289)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: Steve Parkes

They were all over the place, particularly near farms so the POWs could work on the land. There was one in Aldridge (South Staffs, as it was then) holding Italians; they were well-liked by the locals, I'm told.

17 Apr 03 - 09:42 AM (#935379)
Subject: Lyr Add: THE COWARD'S GRAVE
From: Steve Parkes

I found the words! The tune is "The Deserter" ("Ratcliffe Highway"), the non-modal version.

THE COWARD'S GRAVE (c) Barrie Roberts

The woods by the Tamar were green in the summer
When down to the village came news of the war,
And the young men of that village left their work and their womenfolk
To march to the colours as their fathers before.

And they spoke not of courage, and they spoke not of duty,
And there was among them not one would ask why
The madness of statesmen should lead them to wander,
To adventure into battle, and for many to die.

The woods by the Tamar were green in the springtime
When down to the village a stranger there came,
A young man and good-looking, who should be a soldier,
And all that he told them was only his name.

And they asked not the reason why he was not in uniform,
And they asked not the reason why he wandered alone.
With his strong and skilled hands then he made and he mended,
And took up the tasks that their men left undone.

The woods by the Tamar were bare in the winter
When down to the village there came a strange band
Of men with grim faces in scarlet and khaki
Who marched through the village with guns in their hands.

And they sought for the lodging of that young single stranger,
But not one in the village would give them "good-day",
But they sought him and they found him, and with rifles all around him
Down through the village they marched him away.

All the people stood watching in silence and pity
As down through the High Street they marched him in shame.
"A deserter under escort!" the sergeant cried loudly,
But not one who had known him could call him that name.

In the woods by the Tamar he broke from his escort,
Like the deer from the hunter, made straight for the trees;
All through the bare forest they hunted and cornered him
High up on the bluff where the Tamar flows free.

Swift through that gorge runs the wild rolling Tamar,
And swollen by floods is the river's wild tide,
But he cast not one glance on the men who pursued him,
And straight to the river's grey waters he dived.

And they spoke not one word, but they watched there in amazement
As he battled with the river for the far Devon shore,
Till at last his strength broke 'neath that cold roaring torrent:
He sank 'neath the water and they saw him no more.

Now go down to the churchyard, go and look where they have laid him,
A deserter and a coward, in a charity grave;
And think while you stand at the side of his gravestone
On men that are foolish and on men that are brave.

And speak not of duty, for he did what he must do,
Because he believed, not because he was told.
And speak not of courage as you stand at the graveside
Of the coward who would battle with the Tamar so bold.

17 Apr 03 - 12:18 PM (#935509)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: alanabit

Good song. Thanks. I grew up just outside Callington (no jokes please). Where are you from Steve?

18 Apr 03 - 12:57 AM (#935794)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: robinia

This isn't a criticism of what sounds like a fine song -- but does the Tamar ever have a "far shore"?   I know it's the boundary between Cornwall and Devon, but it struck me (in June) as one you could almost leap across...

18 Apr 03 - 05:22 AM (#935850)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: alanabit

It depends where you want to cross, doesn't it? If you want to cross at Calstock you should take a good run up and if you want to cross at Saltash... Most folks take the bridge...

22 Apr 03 - 03:41 AM (#937605)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: Steve Parkes

I'm from Walsall, which is just outside Aldridge (or vice versa). I regret that I am unable to enter into any correspondence of a geographical or hydrological nature. (This is mainly to protect my ignorance of Devon and Cornwall, despite my having been there several times between 1956 ad last year!)


P.S. Anything on the original story?

22 Apr 03 - 02:28 PM (#937901)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: Liz the Squeak

Any river, sea or lake has a far shore, it's the one you aren't standing on, even if it's only a few feet away.

The only specific one I've ever heard of is the far fatal shore - which is the name given to numerous shores in Tasmania (Van Dieman's land) or Australia where convicts and other transported people fetched up.


30 Jun 04 - 03:07 PM (#1217213)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: GUEST,Barrie Roberts

Having just come across my old song on your site, I thought you might like the real story.

In 1960 I spent some time in Callington, working for HMG, and stayed at Chubbs' Private Hotel, kept by the 3 maiden ladies Chubb. Because I kept odd hours and frequently worked evenings, the proprietors would sometimes invite me into tht back kitchen late for a cuppa.

Chubbs was primarily a commercial hotel, full of reps & travellers, but a woman had stayed there on her own for one night that spring and the owners seemed to know who she was. They told me the story in the song, and told me that their guest (who was the dead man's sister) came every spring from somewhere near London to trim her brother's grave.

I always thought it might make a good song, but it never seemed to jell, so I laid it aside. In 1973 I was on a N.Sea ferry, bound for Denmark, and sharing the boat with the Birmingham Mail Ladies' Group, or some such, most of whom were completely kalied and falling about noisily. Sitting alone in the lounge, watching the sea and listening to the distant thud of falling drunks, I recalled the old Victorian hack ballad 'The Deserter' and started to set my tale to it. The text Steve has given you is vrtually word for word as I wrote it that night.

When people began to ask for the words I published them as a broadsheet, and it also appeared in 'SONGSMITH' magazine. In the following year a clerical friend of mine visited Callington and found the grave in the 'overflow' churchyard and photographed it for me. It was spring again and the grave was clean and had fresh flowers, so she was still keeping faith with her brother 30 years on. I wont give the name on the stone, but it's a military headstone and the dates give it away if you want to look.

My friend found that the town had entirely forgotten the event by 1974.

Thanks for remembering the song, Steve, and thanks for remembering someone who probably just wanted to be left alone.

01 Jul 04 - 03:08 PM (#1217805)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: Cats


I live in Kelly Bray. Please PM me with the details of the grave and I'll go and check it out for you. It's a good song and I can revive it here on the banks of the Tamar if you don't mind me singing it. I promise I will do it justice.

01 Jul 04 - 06:29 PM (#1217926)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: GUEST,Barrie Roberts

Cats -- I recall Kellybray. Didn't King Arthur hold his Court thereabouts? Still, that was probably before your time. I was Admin Officer at the Excelsior Mine Site on Kit Hill. When we were performing official tricks in the tunnel we had to close the Callington-Kellybray Road. That made us really popular --- stopping busloads of shoppers, delaying laundry deliveries, making butchers late, etc, etc.
As to the real 'Coward's Grave', I haven't laid hands on the photo for a while and I've had a fire and 4 moves of house since, so don't hold your breath. I can confirm that it is an official military tombstone in the characteristic British services style and stands in what I was told in 1974 was the 'overflow cemetery'. Does this help?
By all means sing the song. I would like to know that it has finally reached it's birthplace after all these years.

02 Jul 04 - 02:53 AM (#1218096)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: alanabit

I lived in Kelly Bray in the early seventies and I never heard that particular legend about King Arthur. He was rumoured to have been conceived at Tintagel, which is on the other side of Bodmin Moor. You can see his Stone at Camelford. I used to practise my football skills on a disused mine top, where the uneven bounce forced me to pay attention!
I wonder which cemetery you are talking about. Is it that one on Liskeard Road about half a mile from the centre of Callington?

02 Jul 04 - 04:30 AM (#1218139)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: GUEST,Cats at Work

The legend of King Arthur and the Callington/Kit Hill link comes from the Mabinogion. In there it tells of King Arthur holding his court at Celliwic which is the old name for Callington. The hill top at Celliwic is Kit Hill, which I see out of my front window if I look left - so now you know exactly where I am! I thought the 'overflow' might be the cemetry in Liskeard Road as well as there is no overflow from the St Mary's one. The cemetry now houses Callington Museum in what was the chapel of rest, so, if I can find it, we'll go into the Museum and flag it up. We'll also put an article in the town newsletter to see if anyone remembers it. Do you know which village it was he worked in as each village now has it's own newsletter and I can get it in there. It sounds as if it could be Gunnislake as that's where the 'chimney rock' is - the only local bluff.

02 Jul 04 - 08:34 PM (#1218701)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: GUEST,Barrie Roberts

There you are! I told you King Arthur used to party in Kellybray. If it's in the Mabinogion it must be true!
I doubt if Gunnislake was where he (the deserter -- not K.Arthur) lived. As I was told the story in 1960, he was captured somewhere in, or close to, Callington itself. As the truck carrying him and his escort approached the bridge at Gunnislake, he escaped into the woods. When I was there the road was heavily wooded on both sides. Apparently, he went up from the road, through the trees until he was cornered somewhere above and dived into the river.
Best of luck.

03 Jul 04 - 03:47 AM (#1218807)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: alanabit

I never bumped into him (King Arthur) when I went into the Swingletree for a pint. I'll ask my brother in law next time I'm there...

30 Jul 04 - 08:09 AM (#1237032)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: Cats

I have just spent the past hour talking to 2 very nice ladies in Callinton Museum after having found the grave of our so-called deserter. It has to be him as it is the only WW2 military grave in the overflow cemetry in Liskeard Road. He was a member of the Pioneer Corps and died on 11th February 1941. The upshot of it is, the ladies at the museum would like any information on the soldier and a copy of the words of the song about him so that his story is not forgotten. I did sing the song to him by his grave.

Next step is the Pioneer Corps records to see if he has any surviving relatives.

08 Aug 04 - 11:38 AM (#1242535)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: GUEST,Barrie Roberts

Hi Cats,
Thanks for your efforts. You have the right grave --- I recall that date.
'Coward's Grave' was first published ib SONGSMITH magazine about 1978. I later issued it on a broadsheet.
If you have a photo of the grave, mine seems to have disappeared and I would welcome one via my website:

08 Aug 04 - 02:21 PM (#1242635)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: Selchie - (RH)

Th 'official/military' headstone will be from The Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They may also be able to help in tracing relatives.


Good Luck with this touching & interesting thread.


08 Aug 04 - 02:25 PM (#1242640)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: Selchie - (RH)

Sorry, forgot this one:

Try The Royal British Legion. Their County Field Officer in Cornwall should be able to advise & I'm sure he would help. If it's of interest to them, it could make their quarterly magazine.


11 Aug 04 - 04:52 AM (#1244564)
Subject: RE: Cornwall UK WWII deserter query
From: Cats

Now we are back from Sidmouth and Dartmoor.. Thanks for the ideas. I'll go down next week and take a photo and e mail it to you. I'll make sure the grave is well clipped and I'll take some flowers from my garden too. I've contacted the Pioneer corps and they have a facility for tracing relatives and personnel histories. Hope fully things will move soon. I'm also going to put a piece in the callington magazine to see if anyone rememebrs him being here.