Saturday, 10 November 2012


This Remembrance Sunday actually falls on Armistice Day; 11 November, my late grandmother's birthday.

Born in 1888, she lost her fiancee, Bill, to the Great War. He wasn't killed, but returned so changed by his experiences that he was not the man she had waved off. Shell shock (what we would now term PTSD) had left him a broken man. His (understandably) over-protective mother became another obstacle to their lives together and granny reluctantly broke the engagement. Had she not done so, "that red-headed sailor" who kept coming in to the shop where she worked might never have had the chance to become my grandfather. While looking though a recently-discovered photo album earlier this year, my mother pointed out a picture of Bill. Granny had clearly cared enough to keep his picture and to tell her daughter about him.  It cannot have been an easy decision - my grandmother was a wonderful, caring person, and I just cannot see her breaking the engagement through self-interest. 

Her three brothers, Harold, Percy and Ernest, all volunteered and all survived.

Harold and Ernest, Canadian Expeditionary Force

Percy with his wife, Bessie

Through sheer good luck and the right birth dates, our family has been fortunate - we did not lose any family members in either World War. My maternal grandfather Albert (the "red-headed sailor") served on Royal Navy minesweepers, but came through unscathed. My mother remembers him talking of seeing men's hair turn white overnight through shock/cold and the guilt he continued to feel about the sailor who tried to commit suicide on his watch. The man had asked my grandfather for the key to the armoury. When Albert asked why he needed it, the man jovially replied, "I'm going to top myself, sir." Unfortunately, he wasn't joking. In the ensuing attempt to save him, a panicked young rating asked my grandfather what he could do to help - "Should I put a tourniquet round his neck, sir?" - the phrase passed into the family as shorthand for those occasions when all hell is breaking loose and no-one can think clearly what to do. Again, there is a photo of this victim in the family album - I don't know his name, but he is remembered. 


My paternal grandfather had 'a good war'. Prior to the outbreak of war he had been a chauffeur to the Earl of Guilford. He became an Army driver in the Royal Army Service Corps and was ordered to drive across France, which he did without apparent incident, and spent the rest of the war in Cyprus where he "barely heard a shot fired in anger" (according to what he told my father). 

When World War II threatened to take the sons of those who had survived the Great War, we were again a lucky family. My dad, born in 1930, was too young to serve, but claims to be Maidstone's first civilian war casualty due to the cut knee he suffered running home from choir practice at the declaration of war in 1939. The news reached the choirmaster who urged the boys to "hurry home to your families!", which they did. In his hurry, dad tripped over a gravestone and went tumbling....

My lovely uncle Bill, who died last year, was 8 years older than dad; he loved technology - gramophones, crystal sets, etc, and he and his friends heard about men being wanted for war work - "something to do with radios". When he was called up he found himself released on detachment as a civilian to Beamanor in Leicestershire.

We never really knew what he'd done in the war (when asked as a little girl what her daddy had done in the war, my cousin replied, "He wasn't in it!"). It was only recently that we discovered that Beamanor was part of the Bletchley Park operation and that Uncle Bill had spent his war intercepting the transmissions which the Bletchley Park team then analysed and de-coded. Of course, this work was still classified until recently, but he was such a modest man that he would never have bragged about it. He was immensely proud of his work there, though, especially when the work was recognised in 2009:

After the war, he (like my grandfather) joined Kent police and spent his career as a village bobby (the family called him The Chief Constable of Plaxtol) and spent a long and happy retirement in Devon.

So my family will have a lot to give thanks for on Sunday. That our loved ones came through two world wars makes it all the more important that we remember those who did not. 

I don't need a celebrity-style glitter poppy to demonstrate that I care - just quiet reflection on our good fortune and the sacrifice made by others.

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