In my last post, I talked about uncovering the personal stories amongst the collective experience of the First World War. Our new WW1 Servicemen’s Histories are intended to give you an insight into the particular experience of your relative using WW1 British Army service records, pension records, casualty lists and regimental records.
Of course, from this vantage point, the experiences of our family members who were left behind are just as fascinating for us as those of the soldiers themselves. In digging around in my own family’s First World War experiences, I came across this rather amazing letter, written by my grandmother’s Uncle Norman about his own father’s death during the Great War. In recollecting a specific soldier and a single story, it is also exemplary – alluding to an experience that a whole generation would have identified with. No doubt similar letters survive in your own family.
I’ll let the letter speak for itself. A transcription is below.
I would have been around seven years old, an only child, and at home with my mother: father a soldier. The last year of the ’14-’18 War. I so vividly remember my mother telling me to answer knocking at the front door and when doing so was handed a telegram by a telegraph boy in Post Office uniform. At that moment mother came to the door, signed for the telegram, and we both went into the kitchen. On looking back I think it was obvious that mother had guessed at the contents of the telegram as she had not opened it when the telegraph boy called.
She sat for some moments and then undid the envelope and read the telegram. How, other than putting arms around a weeping mother and joining her in her tears, can a seven year old bring comfort to someone who has just received a message reading, “We regret to inform you that your husband William Finn is reported Missing, believed killed in action.”
Father had been in the Royal Engineers attached to the 8th Gloucesters. Mother at that time, heard of odd instances of men returning home who had earlier been reported as “Missing” and within a very short time following receipt of the telegram grew to believe that Dad would return to us.
For two full years our old-fashioned copper boiler in the kitchen was lit each night and hot water kept available therein for Dad – he would want a bath (a round metal one kept hanging in the shed) when he came home. Between our house and the next was an alley and any footstep or sound heard there or in the street during the night would be a signal for my mother – and usually myself – to spring to instant wakefulness.
Sometime in, I think, 1920 mother received a letter from an ex-soldier living in Kent and, as a result of this, he came to visit us in Southend. He told us he had served with Dad and had, in fact, been with him when he was killed. He himself had subsequently been injured and following discharge from hospital after two years returned to his home in Kent. He then thought he would endeavour to track down his old friend’s widow – Lillie Finn; he knew she lived somewhere in Southend-on-Sea: this he did and told us the following —
It was at a time then known, I believe, as the ‘Big Push’ when the Germans had thrown in every man and halted the Allies’ advance; indeed the latter had fallen back on many fronts. Dad, this man and eight other Royal Engineers had been out tracing and repairing cut lines of communication at night. At about one or two a.m. a thick fog came up and it was not possible to return to their own Battalion so the ten men took shelter in a “Pill Box” hoping the fog would ease off with the dawn.
However, although lighter by about 5 a.m. fog was still dense with visibility down to a few yards and the party decided to leave and find their way back. A short while afterwards the fog lifted to some extent and they realised they were surrounded on three sides by Germans who were themselves advancing preparatory to an attack.
The ten men had only one escape route between two shell holes which were filled with water; this they attempted but as they ran through it the Germans opened up with a machine gun. Only one man, the Kent soldier, escaped and reached British Lines – only to be wounded soon after he told us (he had, up to then, assumed we were well aware that father had been killed). He had seen Dad shot through the head and had seen him fall into the water-filled shellhole. This was of course why we had been informed “Reported Missing” – his body had never been found or, if found, had been unidentified.
This news was very merciful.
In 1925 or 1926 mother and I went with a group on a Battlefield Tour (possibly then run for Widows by the war Graves Commission?). Menin Gate. The Tyne Cot memorial. Father was killed at St. Eloi, not far from Ypres. We visited many areas – Poperinge, Bethune, Hazebrouck, Arras, Abbeville, Amiens, Cambrai, Mons etc etc. I remember our driver, a Frenchman with but little English – he came into the Cemetery with us. In second year High School French, I managed to tell him my father had no known grave and the nearest I could come to making him understand this was to describe Dad as one of ‘Les Inconnus’.