11th DLI and Family History

Probably the greatest pleasure I get from this blog is the periodic contact I get from descendants of 11 DLI men researching their ancestors. During the WW1 centenary period I guess this is likely to increase. I am particularly keen to hear from anyone who can add or correct information that I have posted in the Roll of Honour, and to get photos of the men or their families. When I get time I hope to put up a gallery of images.

As an example, last year I had the surprise contact from someone in my grandfather’s adoptive family line, the McGlassons. Over the years contact between them and the Bashforths had been lost, so it was great to be back in touch. What was even more astonishing was that they had kept many more photographs than my immediate family, including ones of my grandfather and grandmother I had never seen before – not least two that contained pictures of my father as a baby. A little indication of how my Gran must have had to put memories of my Grandad into the back of a drawer as she got on with a new marriage, a new husband and a new and larger family.

As frequent readers will have noticed from my rare ‘political’ comments, I am not much interested in arguments about the rights and wrongs of the war, even less about the machinery of it. A friend of mine often sends messages on a postcard which reads “If war was the answer it must have been a stupid question.” I do care passionately about the impact of war on human beings and on families, and it is the family history contacts that I value most. It shows that, generations on, WW1 still hurts. If anything, that hurt is resurfacing after having been suppressed for too long by the ‘British’ stiff upper lip and the demands of patriotism.

So do keep the contacts coming in!

1914 – What should we commemorate?

There are some unseemly debates raging about how we should be commemorating the First World War at the time of its centenary and what should be the content. This is not the place for joining in that particular contest.

This website and blog have the simple purpose of recalling the men who served in one particular battalion, those who died or were traumatised physically and psychologically, and their families and the communities from which they came. It fits into the perspective that there were very few families in Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Russia and the other main combatant nations who were not marked by that experience. Some families carried the scars for generations and still do. Grief is still present.

As I have commented in my book, something this personal should not be the subject of a ‘one size fits all’ approach to remembrance. It is not for politicians, academics, ‘experts’, or commercial enterprises to dictate how each of us might choose, or not, to remember the war that was ‘great’ only in size and catastrophic consequence. It was not ‘over by Christmas’, it did not ‘end all wars’: far from it in both instances. For those who lost someone, as remains the case for those with serving soldiers in their families today, it will never be ended.

So, I will say this to those who want to impose some standard set of rules on remembrance. You were wrong in 1919 to bury personal losses under a panoply of centrally controlled, militaristic ceremonial. You have been wrong ever since. Get off our backs. Pack up you flags and bunting. Put your toys away.

We might hope that the centenary provides an opportunity to reflect on all that went wrong and that means might be devised to end all wars, now and forever. I have heard and seen nothing yet to provide any hope of that, least of all from the British Government.

There is perhaps one way to commemorate those who were sacrificed in 1914-1919 that we might all be able to sign up to. STOP THE KILLING – NOW!

January 1918

It seems an odd coincidence that I commence the (more or less) final year of 11 DLI’s war diary at a time when the centenary of the outbreak of the war has firmly entered media consciousness. As I have tried in my book to keep the focus on the ordinary men, officers and other ranks, and their families and local communities, I will attempt to keep that focus despite the arguments that will rage elsewhere and the consumerist garbage that will pass for ‘commemoration’ (they are already selling the t-shirts). For me all debates about the Great War that do not start at the grassroots of experience, military and civilian on all sides, are best left to the armchair generals, revisionists and re-enactment playboys, who should be confined to some desert island somewhere, much as should have happened in 1914 to the idiots on all sides who got our ancestors into this mess.

For 11 DLI, the new year of 1918 was ‘celebrated’, if at all, at Dickebusch on the Ypres front in Belgium. New Year’s Day was spent wiring trenches, during which two men were wounded. The Lewis gunners continued to practice their particular skills. This went on for the best part of a week until the battalion went forward to Zillebeke to relieve the 11th South Lancashire Regiment. From here they spent most of their time continuing with wiring trenches, interspersed with work on mule tracks and other forward communications such as Culley’s Trail and the trenches at Perth Avenue. There was the usual gradual attrition of daily wounds and men going sick. Despite a welcome influx of new young officers bringing their numbers up to 41 by the end of the month, the number of rankers had declined by almost 100 over the month, leaving a total of 672 – about three quarters of a normal sized battalion. It was a shortage matched across every regiment and battalion in the front line, with consequences yet to be realised.