These are my great-grandparents, Gerald Alfred Alexander Pack and Edith Jane “Jen” Wells. In launching our new personal histories of WW1 servicemen, I have been thinking about them a lot lately. A handsome young couple, they have always seem to me emblematic of the romance and tragedy of that WW1 generation. Separated throughout the war in which he was decorated as a Royal Army Medical Corps ambulance driver, we still have many of the loving letters he wrote home to “my dear Jen”, before marrying her after his discharge in the spring of 1920. My grandfather was born three years later. Yet by that time, photos show the clear eyed young private was gone. Gerald, thirty or thereabouts, was already an old man – a shadowy, heavy-browed figure. One might imagine plagued by the things he had seen at Ypres, Vimy and Passchendaele. He was dead by the age of 38.
I know I am not alone in finding something about the First World War uniquely compelling. There are the banner headlines, of course – so familiar they have almost lost their power. The massive sacrifice. The lost generation, a scar on almost every family in the British Isles. The loss of sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, husbands. No men to marry. A poppy for every casualty. A generation “known unto god”. Their name liveth forever more. We will remember them.
And the First World War is interesting in so far as it symbolised, in so many ways, a watershed in this country’s history and the history of European warfare. It marked the first and last time ordinary men would be called up to serve and give their lives on such an enormous scale. It more or less signalled the end of hand-to-hand ‘battlefield’ warfare, pioneering new forms of aerial intelligence and destruction. It led to women gaining the vote. It sowed the seeds for that other ‘great’ war, twenty years later.
But that’s not quite it. What I find fascinating are the individual stories that lay behind this collective experience. The thousands of separate impulses, circumstances, motivations that pitched this generation of young men into the mud of Flanders, or up impossible Turkish hillsides, to fight for a few metres of ground – otherwise known as ‘the greater good’ or ‘liberty’. My grandfather used to say that the First World War couldn’t happen now – young men of today’s generation have far too great a sense of their own individual rights. Ordinary men would not – could not – be disciplined or obedient enough to serve in the way that their great-grandfathers did. They just wouldn’t go. I think to some extent he was right. But, unconsciously or not, are today’s attitudes shaped by the experiences of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers? And, are we being too simplistic in ascribing a lack of individualism to a generation that laid down their lives?
God knows, the searing poetry that came out of the First World War describes what individual sacrifice felt like, what it cost. And perhaps just as eloquently, spoke the silence of those thousands of servicemen who could never afterwards articulate what they’d been through.
It is the individual experience, amidst thousands, that interests me. How it felt to sit in a freezing trench for a whole winter, to see the insides of your friends, brothers and comrades, to look into someone’s eye before killing them. What backgrounds shaped ‘heroes’ and ‘cowards.’ And, while we can never approximate the thoughts and emotions of our WW1 ancestors, surviving records can go a long way to help us individually reconstruct ‘their war’. Using a mixture of service, pension, regimental and casualty records, it is possible to piece together a great deal of detail about when and where relatives served, what they would have seen and experienced, whether they were recognised for their bravery, where their scars came from. And, for those that survived, it is often possible to decipher how their wartime experiences might have shaped their later life.
As recent episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? have shown, First World War records offer many of us with relatives who experienced the Great War first hand, a fascinating opportunity to better get to know what they went through. And thereby, to honour it.
If you’d like help exploring your own WW1 ancestors, or would like to commission research as a gift, please contact us for more information.