The Book and the Author

The 11th Durham Light Infantry: In Their Own Names began life in 1998 as an attempt to understand the experiences of my grandfather, Sergeant Thomas Bashforth, in the First World War. He joined up following a public meeting in Darlington, County Durham, on 29 August 1914 and was killed in action near Arvillers in France on 27 March 1918. Following some basic research into the history of the battalion, I visited Picardy in September 1999, travelled around the area and checked his name on the Memorial to the Missing at Pozières. I sought out the field at Arvillers where he was killed and searched for the grave of an unknown DLI man at the nearby cemetery at Bouchoir. I adopted one of these headstones in his name.

The book evolved from that time on, constantly expanding and deepening as I built up a network of contacts and developed new ways of detailed research using techniques drawn from family and local history. No-one else so far has researched a single battalion in such a detailed way, tracking down the records of personnel and their families wherever these might be found. I was helped by others who also had ancestors from 11th DLI, not least Gaynor Greenwood who presented me with transcripts of some eighty letters from her forebear, Private Robert David Bennett.

Bennett’s letters provide a startlingly intimate viewpoint on the period of training in England and the first year in France and Flanders, until he was killed in action in September 1916. Bennett had been a miner from Shotton Colliery, part of a family from Llanberis, North Wales. With only an elementary education and not being used to writing, the letters have a plain quality that makes them all the more poignant. Here we have the viewpoint of a very ordinary man caught up in quite extraordinary experiences. We are there alongside him.

Associating as I did with academic historians on the one hand and descendants on the other, the effect was to make me aware of the deeper issues surrounding remembrance of past wars. These concerns meshed with the ongoing experience of present day conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and the constant reminders of the deeply personal and emotional cost of war. I became aware that the whole concept of remembrance has shifted in recent years, away from the formalised, official ceremonial promulgated on the first Armistice Day of 1919, through a period of almost neglect, to a much more human and personalised response. The book draws from this sensation and celebrates it, acknowledging that we now stand emotionally closer to those who grieved a century ago and to their feelings about remembering their loved ones.

The process of research and writing has had its effect on me as the author. It has changed my own attitude to remembrance and has radicalised my view of history. I can now join in public acts of remembrance able to assert my individuality in the face of any accompanying militarism and patriotism. I no longer see history as something in which individuals are the prey of forces greater than themselves, but rather they make their choices and shape the world in ways that are perhaps not so easy to discern and which impact on subsequent generations in a very personal way. There is hope in that as well as pain.

Martin Bashforth, Spring 2011.