diamond geezer

 Saturday, November 10, 2018

As the centenary of the Armistice ticks closer, I thought I'd look back into my own family's First World War story, based on genealogical research and the occasional treasured artefact. Don't expect anything unduly horrific or outstanding.

My grandparents were born between 1900 and 1905, so were children during the Great War and thankfully missed out on active service. But my great-grandparents were born in the 1870s, part of the generation most directly affected, so they're the group I've been investigating.

My Mum's grandfather, Harry, signed up six years early. The British government launched the Territorial Force in April 1908 as a volunteer back-up contingent for the British Army, a bit like today's Territorial Army but with a higher chance of seeing active service. Harry signed up within the first fortnight, putting his signature to an official document agreeing to a four year term and to payment of a £5 fine if he failed to attend the necessary number of drills. Question 15(c) asked 'Do you understand that when a proclamation has been issued in case of imminent national danger or great emergency calling out the first class Army Reserve you will become liable to be embodied?', to which he answered Yes. He can't have imagined quite what he was letting himself in for.

Harry was part of the Hertfordshire Regiment, one of a small number of Territorial units who were called up alongside the regular army in August 1914 to form the British Expeditionary Force. The regiment were ordered to assemble at Romford the day after war broke out, then moved north to Bury St Edmunds for two months of training. On 5th November the regiment took the train to Southampton, sailed at midnight for Le Havre, swiftly moving onto Saint-Omer. Their march to the front took them through Ypres, and their first trench action came on 14th November, relieving troops after the Battle of Nonne Bosschen. That's from Suffolk to front line fighting in nine days flat.

Thanks to the internet, and a transcribed war diary, I know exactly what Harry's regiment got up to for the next four years. I even have a map. As well as Ypres they were involved at Loos, the Somme and Passchendale, last seeing service in Picardy on 5th November 1918. What I don't know is how much of those four years my great-grandfather spent in the thick of things. He wasn't killed, nor seriously injured, nor outstandingly valiant, so he doesn't crop up in dispatches. All I have is his digitised medal record, which shows he earned all the usual ones, and that he made it through to the end of the war intact. It would have been amazing to hear first hand of his experiences on the Western Front, however terrible, but he died in 1952 so I never will.

My Dad's grandfather, Edward, was 44 when World War One kicked off. He didn't enlist straight away but waited until January 1915 before throwing in his lot with the Royal Army Flying Corps. One of the things he did that day was fill in an official postcard, which we still have, to confirm to the rest of the family the major step he'd just taken. It's addressed to his wife in Maida Vale, with a tuppence ha'penny stamp and a South Farnborough postmark, and reveals the crucial regimental number she'd need to quote at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Association. Imagine entrusting yourself to a brand new technology as international warfare took to the air.

I know Edward was an Air Mechanic 2nd Class, a rank which included acetylene welders, blacksmiths, engine fitters, gear mechanics, aircraft riggers and electricians, but I don't know which of those he did. His first 'Theatre of War' was in France on 24th July 1915, because it says so on his medal record, and I think he was assigned to No 3 Squadron if that's what the Roman numerals mean. But I'm not certain precisely where he was based, whether he flew or stayed on the ground, or anything much about his time in service. All I do know is that his military career was cut short at some time in November 1917.

Edward's record gives the reason for his discharge as "sickness", in common with most of the other men in the register at the time. I understand this was a euphemism for mustard-gassed, 1917 being the peak of that appalling chemical weapon's use. He was discharged through South Farnborough on 5th December, and intriguingly the official War Office register lists his age as 36 when he was actually ten years older. Alas Edward's health never really recovered and he died of lung complications in 1921 aged just 50. Just because the Armistice was signed in 1918 doesn't mean casualties suddenly ceased, and the war continued to take its toll for many years.

My Dad's other grandfather, Thomas, was 35 when war broke out but I don't know what he did. If he'd signed up surely there'd be records, or maybe he had a more important job to do back home. As for my Mum's other grandfather, James, he died on New Year's Day 1914 and missed the whole thing. And my great-grandmothers of course never enlisted because times were very different, and so remained at home for the duration looking after the children. Those are four more stories I'll never hear told. Maybe they were nothing special, but the story of mass conflict is the accumulation of millions of individual narratives, and everyone's enduring experience counts. Lest we forget.

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