Wilfred Smith died of wounds in Palestine on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1917. I can't tell when he received those wounds but it was most probably between 21 November and 8 December in the severe fighting that led to the Ottoman armies abandonment of Jerusalem, which General Allenby entered - on foot to show his respect for the Holy City - on 11 December.
What can Smith's parents have meant by their choice of the single word 'Hope' for Wilfred's inscription? They could have meant any number of things but I am taking a gamble that they were referring to GF Watts' most famous painting, which went by the name of 'Hope'. The painting didn't disappear into private ownership but was donated by Watts to the Tate Galley, in other words, to the nation. Here it could be seen by the general public and once it became possible to make cheap reproductions of paintings, it became the most popular of all prints. Interestingly, Nelson Mandela apparently had a print in his prison cell, and Barak Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope, was inspired by Watts' painting.
Whatever the word 'hope' might conjure up for us today, I don't think it would be Watts' melancholy image of a dejected, blindfolded woman, sitting on a golden sphere in a swirling mist of blues and greens. The woman is plucking at the single remaining string of a broken lyre, her head bent close to try and catch the sound. As GK Chesterton said, the painting might as well have been called 'Despair'.
Yet perhaps this is what it's all about. We are alone in the universe, we don't know where we're going or what is going to happen to us but it is the human condition to hope, however slender the thread. By the end of the nineteenth century many people wondered where the world was going. As the old certainties faded - faith, the belief in progress, mankind's place in the great scheme of things - what would replace them? There wasn't much reason to hope but if we tried we might catch the faintest reverberations to encourage us.
And if people were discouraged by the situation in the world at the end of the nineteenth century, how much worse it must have been during the war years as Empires clashed and casualty figures mounted and hundreds of thousands of young men - including Wilfred Smith - were killed.
Many families chose inscriptions reflecting the Christian's "sure and certain hope of the Resurrection of the body unto eternal life". But Watts' painting doesn't reflect that kind of hope, and nor, I think, does Mr and Mrs Smith's inscription. Hope is something human's cling on to but there is no certainty about it.