It is easy, and perhaps comforting to some, to gloss remembrance of family members who died in the First World War in warm colours about heroism and gallantry. Too little attention is paid to the emotional cost, as if grief and the harshness of real memories were some kind of affront against the official, ‘authorised’ version of Remembrance with a capital R. Experiences in the case of my own family history and that of several other families of former 11 DLI men who have contacted me tell a different story.
Previously I posted a transcript of the letter of Pte Charles Oddy, in which he spoke of the larks singing in No Man’s Land in the Spring of 1917 and how it made a nonsense of the war in which fate seemed to have plunged both sides. It was his last letter home, a final testament as it were, and one we should bear in mind during the centenary years.
There are no surviving letters from my grandfather, Sgt Thomas Bashforth, but there are family stories that have been passed down and a series of photographs, recently discovered, which tell another story.
On his last home leave, Thomas bade goodbye to his wife and children in Darlington, including three-month old Ray (my father), and set off the hundred yards or so to Bank Top Station. He fell into conversation with Mrs Ingledew, his next-door neighbour, who was working as a porter. The story as it came down is that he said he was ‘going to take his hook’ as he couldn’t stand it any longer. Mrs Ingledew persuaded him against such a drastic move, the consequences of which could have been terrible for him and his family. So he went back, to die just a few weeks later. It may have been no more than reflective conversation, rather than a real intention, amplified in memory by what was his fate, but it reveals his state of mind.
The photographs add visual poignancy. Recently come to light, they show my grandmother with each of her children in turn, and sometimes in groups with my grandfather and other relatives, all shining with a mother’s quiet pride. The last two of the sequence show her with my father as a baby, first in a portrait for Thomas to take back to France, taken in December 1917 or January 1918, and then from later in 1918, with my Dad on her knee. Judge for yourself, but the light has gone out of my grandmother’s eyes. It was a pain that was to haunt her for decades to come.
I was reminded of this by recent correspondence with the family of Pte Edward Collins. While my father had no memory of his father, Matilda Louisa Collins was four years old when her father came home on leave and went back for the last time. She remembers him banging his head on the wall in desperation at having to go back yet again. What kind of last memory is that for a child to bear?
The shock of war could haunt even its survivors for years to come. Lt Myles Cooper witnessed terrible events during the 1918 March Retreat. He survived only by the skin of his teeth and a degree of luck, but the memories bored into his soul. Struggling in the 1930s with unemployment and financial difficulties for his family, and having recently lost his daughter to illness, he shot himself. In happier times, even during the early part of the war, he had been outgoing, active in the battalion concert party.
A century later and still the politicians and petty warlords thirst for the ‘hand of history’ on their shoulder as they sacrifice more young men and women, though never themselves. Rather than seeing this as some sort of personal glory, they should see it for what it really is – their complete and utter failure as politicians and human beings. Perhaps their rightful place in history is in its dustbin.
 See my chapter ‘Absent Fathers, Present Histories’ for how this story continued to unfold over subsequent generations [Chapter 11 in Public History and Heritage Today: People and their Pasts, ed. Paul Ashton and Hilda Kean, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke and New York, paperback edition 2012].