Two dead already – 100 years ago

With all the emphasis that tends to be placed on men being killed in action, it is easy to forget that some died during training before they even got to the front. Two men from 11th DLI suffered that fate before the battalion went overseas in July 1915.

Private 18866 Frederick Newman from Birtley died of double pneumonia on 6 December 1914. His widow was subjected to some bureaucratic procedures after the war. She had to fill out a form dated 28 April 1920 to state that Newman had not died ‘from disease medically certified as commencing or contracted on active service’. This seems strange given that (a) she had been granted a pension of 15 shillings previously, (b) she had re-married (she was now Mrs Blacklock)and (c) Newman had died while in training at Pirbright Camp. His body was not returned to Birtley and he was buried at Brookwood, where his widow attended the funeral. The medical papers show he had suffered high temperatures, ‘dullness right base’, his breathing had been very difficult and he was given oxygen, but did not survive. Quite what the authorities sought to achieve by this late inquisition leaves one wondering – and comparing it with similar welfare bureaucracy today.

Private 16024 Thomas Kane died 13 January 1915 aged 30 and was buried in his home parish at St Mary’s Heworth. He was previously a miner and his wife Ellen Kane was 10 years older. They had married in 1910 and had no children by the time of the 1911 Census. His service records have not survived so it is not clear if they had any children subsequently (possibly at least one son in 1911) or whether Ellen received any sort of pension. Nor do we know the precise cause of death.

It would be good to know more about these two unfortunate men. Anybody out there with any knowledge?

A war to end all wars?

A war to end all wars? Or so they said when it was all over in 1918. I don’t know what my grandfather would have been thinking 100 years ago in early June 1915, when he was in the later stages of training at Rugeley in Staffordshire with 16th DLI. Corporal Thomas Bashforth probably knew by then that he would shortly be going out to France. He would pop home for a short period of embarkation leave to see his wife, daughter and new born son, also called Thomas. A few weeks later he would be with 11th DLI at Laventie.

Probably the last thing on his mind would have been the thought that exactly 25 years later his son Tom would be out in the North Atlantic with the Royal Navy on convoy protection duty and that he would later be part of the life line to Russia through the Arctic Ocean. He would not have imagined that another son yet to be born, Signalman Ray Bashforth, would have been on the beaches at Dunkirk. Even if at that stage in WW1 it was not being claimed to be the ‘war to end all wars’, Tommy Bashforth would not have expected his own children to go through another war so soon.

Sergeant Thomas Bashforth did not finally make it home, dead on the battlefield at Arvillers in March 1918. His widow re-married and after 1939 saw five sons in all go off to war before 1945. As luck would have it they all returned safely home, but how many scares did she have? How many times did she fear for her eldest on the high seas? What was she thinking as she read the news in late May and early June 1940 knowing that her second son was somewhere in the thick of the BEF retreat in northern France? What did she feel when, in 1942, the 8th Army was in retreat across the North African desert, with Ray again in the thick of it as well as her third son Edwin serving with the RAF? Above all, what did she feel when that note arrived from the War Office saying Ray was ‘missing’, just like the one she had got 24 years earlier about her first husband? What a relief when Ray was able to write courtesy of the Vatican to say he was safe in a POW camp in Italy – not that that was quite the end of that story! He went missing again in the mountains of the Abruzzo in September 1943, making it home in January 1944.

Those in the thick of it often say that they just get on with the job in hand, whatever circumstances may throw at them. It is those at home who live with the uncertainty and anxiety and then have to cope with the news, good or bad. They don’t get any medals and nobody builds monuments in their name.

Perhaps now in the 21st century we need to look more closely at what passes for ‘war’ in these days. Since Thomas Bashforth sat down at the end of a day’s training in June 1915, would he have imagined that war 100 years later would be conducted with civilians as its primary targets.

A war to end all wars? Perhaps during these centenary years for WW1 and the 75 year commemorations for WW2, we need to stop simply remembering, commemorating and memorialising. Perhaps we need to start thinking a bit harder than that.