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Ich Dien

In Flanders fields the poppies blow,

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place, and in the sky,

The larks still bravely singing fly,

Scarce heard amid the guns below.[1]

Henry Ivor Constance’s mortal remains lie beneath one of those crosses in Flanders Fields. As a young private with the 2nd Battalion of the Welsh Regiment, he was killed in action on Thursday, November 8, 1917, in the Second Battle of Passchendaele, Belgium.

Ivor (as he was known by the family) was the brother of my father’s father, Rev. Bert Constance, making him my great uncle. He was born in Tredegar, Wales in September1892 so had just seen his 25th birthday two months before he died.

The battle took place on the Western Front, from July to November 1917, for control of the ridges south and east of the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders. The campaign was controversial in 1917 and has remained so. In addition to strategic concerns, the unusually heavy summer rain had rendered “no man’s land” between the trenches a quagmire. While specific details of Ivor’s death are unknown, diary accounts from comrades inform us that any forward movement on November 8 meant dealing with knee deep mud and a hail of German machine gun fire.

Five miles of territory were gained during the battle before British and Canadian troops successfully recaptured the village. It is estimated that 325,000 Allied troops (3,000 of them Welsh) and 260,000 Germans died in a battle that became emblematic of the futility and tragic loss of life in the First World War, where more than 100,000 men were lost for every mile gained.

Ivor was buried on November 10, 1917, in what is now White House Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium.

Four months later, in March of 1918, the postman knocked on the door of 51 Victoria Terrace, Tredegar, Wales. Tredegar is an aging little town in the Sirhowy Valley of South Wales. In 1918 it was a thriving center of the coal and iron industry and had already been the home of two generations of my Welsh family. The postman that day handed my great grandfather, Israel Constance a little brown parcel containing the personal effects of his son. In addition to his wallet, unread letters, and other miscellaneous items from his kit bag, the parcel contained the hat badge that Ivor had worn on the day that he was killed. It has been passed down through three generations of Constance’s and is a valued reminder of Ivor’s life and sacrifice.

The hat badge of the Welsh Regiment is the Royal Crest of the Prince of Wales…three ostrich feathers emerging from a gold coronet. At the bottom is a heraldic scroll with the words “Ich Dien,” translation: I Serve. I Serve.

In the British tradition this of course means I serve God and the Crown…God and Country…in that order. The famous final words of Sir Thomas More…” I am the King’s Good Servant, but God’s First.”

[1] Excerpt of poem “In Flanders Fields” By John McCrae


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