Friday, 9 November 2018

Families at War

Remembrance has always been a strong element in my family history. As a child I never understood why, but years later I completely understand.

Family history is a passion for me-I love to discover where I came from and each person's history is fascinating. I first heard about the "uncles" when I was eleven. I had a school project to do and the old photos of the First World War came out in force. The looked strange and really old. The First World War was eons ago as far as I was concerned.Yet it was only my grandparent's generation who had experienced it. My dad's family were the ones in question-mum's father was only 18 at the end of the war and was in a reserved occupation and unable to join up. Which was good-because he met Grandma who was working on munitions in Vickers at Barrow-without that meeting I would not have been here.

So the "Wilkinson" side was most prominent. This was Nannie's family-my paternal grandma-the soldier she showed me was her brother John. The tinted picture was not terribly flattering-really emphasising his heavy jaw. However, he looked quite young. The story was that he had joined up but had been rejected due to poor eye-sight. Lucky I thought. Not so lucky because later in the war when they were running out of men they relaxed the rules and off he went to the Royal Garrison Artillery and the Somme. He was shot and injured in March 1918 and succumbed to his wounds dying peacefully (as his commanding officer told the family in the obligatory letter of condolence) on 28th March 1918 in Wimereaux Field Hospital. The family story was told of the bill Great Granny received for his burial blanket, of the poem written for him by Canon Rawnsley and of his name on the war memorial at St Andrew's church in Coniston. Later I discovered much more, including his last leave two weeks before he was killed, a mystery fiance "F" in his diary and mourning which was carried on for the rest of his mother's life. He is remembered by all of us, and in my uncle's second name as well as many Johns in following generations. 

My sister and her friend took me for my 40th birthday to find his grave. It was the first time I had been to a war grave and we took a rose to place beside him. I wasn't prepared for the sadness and emotion I felt and how humbling the experience would be. The small cemetery in a typical Northern French village is unusual because the grave stones are flat to the ground rather than upright, due to subsidence. We found him and I spared a thought for his mother-who only saw a sepia photograph of the original wooden cross marking his grave. His sister, my Nannie and my Granddad did visit in the 1950s, one of three such graves. Granddad had served and lost two of his brothers, so one can only guess what he was feeling revisiting the Somme so many years later.

These stories will follow in the next blog

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