Life & Culture

A lost soldier gets a place on the cover

Cari Rosen’s great uncle died on the Somme. Now his face will be seen by thousands of readers


A tale which begins on the south coast of England and seemingly concluded on the bloody battlefields of France in 1916 has instead resulted in its hero becoming a cover star more than 100 years after his death. This is the story of my great great uncle, Nathan Neville Levene.
Nathan was born in January 1892 in Brighton, the younger son of Rachel (nee Cohen) and Lewis. Like the rest of his generation, he went to war to fight for King and country in 1914. He served as a lieutenant in the Kings Irish Liverpool Regiment.
In October 1915 he was granted leave to attend the wedding of his older brother, Leon Leonard Levene — a captain and surgeon in the Royal Army Medical Corps — to Yetta Scheff, daughter of Rev Abraham Scheff of Nottingham and North Shields. It was the first marriage to be solemnised at the new synagogue on Leamington Road, Blackpool. The ark had been donated by the brothers in memory of their mother, who had died, aged 47, in 1908. The sermon read at the wedding – and printed in the local paper to mark the auspicious occasion — was read again at my own more than 90 years later.
It was the happiest of days for Nathan, Leon’s best man. But tragically the following summer, at the age of 24, he would be slain on the Somme while leading his men over the top. Though his name is inscribed on the memorial at Thiepval, he has no grave and it might well have been that over the course of time Nathan would be forgotten, lost among the 886,000 other soldiers who were killed over the course of the Great War.
But we were determined that would not happen and on August 8 2016, 100 years after his death, three generations stood in the remote French field where he fell to pay tribute to him, the uncle we never had the privilege to know. The story might have ended there, with our memories of the trip and a raft of photos in the family album. But then a chance conversation changed everything.
Towards the end of last year, in the course of my work as a commissioning editor, I came across an extraordinary novel that I knew immediately I wanted to publish. It’s based on the real-life story of the Tin Nose Shop, the nickname given by wounded soldiers to the Government Department for Masks for Facial Disfigurement, set up to create new “faces” for men who had been brutally disfigured in the trenches. Surgery at that time was rudimentary, and so the thin copper masks, crafted by artists and sculptors, hid their injuries and allowed them to return to their lives with some measure of dignity.
Over the course of our work on the book, the author and I had many conversations, and I must have mentioned our trip to honour Nathan during one of them. I thought no more about it until I sent Don the draft cover, which featured a small stock photo of a soldier.
He immediately suggested replacing that with the only photo we have of Nathan — “to give him his place in the world”.

And so it is that his image — and an afterword telling his story will now be seen by many thousands of readers. Thanks to Don’s thoughtfulness and generosity, Nathan will no longer be just one name among many etched on a memorial hundreds of miles from home. Almost 106 years after his death, his memory has been honoured in the most unexpected way.

The Tin Nose Shop by Don J Snyder is published by Legend Press on July 1.

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