So there I was, with my candle, at 10pm on Monday night. All down the road, the houses were dark, except for single flames in the front windows. It was curiously impressive. I don’t remember anything like this since the Dunblane shootings. It seems that most families in our area still feel a personal connection to the Great War.
On my mother’s side of the family, both my grandfather and my great-grandfather served in the Great War. Grandad was tall, a lanky, gangly teenager. ‘Papa’, my great-grandfather A, was a short, stocky, fortyish French paysan. Neither of them ever talked about what happened to them in those four years. Grandad was gassed and evacuated to a hospital in Britain, where a group photograph was taken of him and his fellows, tiered on benches and chairs like a school class, flanked by QA nurses who wore white veils stiffened into wide kite shapes. When I asked him about the photo, he told me he had a special non-regimental hospital uniform to wear while he was there, but that was as much information as he ever shared. Papa A, being over forty, was in an non-combattant role. I have a notion he ran part of the supply lines. He sent a great many patriotic postcards home to the thirteen-year-old who would become my grandmother. The cards, and her replies, ended up in a shoebox with the photos of Grandad in uniform.
Another of the photos in the shoebox miscellany was a tiny, cigarette-card sized print, in blurry black and white, showing a tombstone. It wasn’t until about ten years ago, when I scanned it into the computer and magnified it, that I was able to read the writing: a memorial to two men of my great-grandfather’s surname, one who went missing in action and the other who died of wounds a couple of years after the end of the war. It wasn’t a standard French military tombstone, although it had crossed tricolores and ‘Pour la France’ at the top. My mother thought it might be a family-erected stone in the cemetery of Papa’s home town. Short of making a visit to the town and trailing round graveyards, there seemed to be no way of finding out more.
Back in March, I caught the end of a BBC programme about writing a letter to the Unknown Soldier. I didn’t realise until much later that this was the Unknown Soldier at Paddington station, by which time I had already written a letter to my family’s own Unknown Soldier. It didn’t seem quite appropriate to submit my letter – in French, to a French soldier – to the BBC website, so I stuck it on the blog. And then I began to wonder….
Eldest went on a GCSE history trip to the Belgian battlefields last year and although he was too far west to visit the place where his great-great-great-uncle disappeared, he did come back with a wealth of information on how the various armies were deployed and a laundry-list of websites that detailed different aspects of war history. I began searching online for websites related to the battlefield where l’oncle P disappeared and, four or five sites in, I came up with one that invited enquiries. In my most formal French, I asked with curlicued politeness whether the blogsite owner might possibly see his way clear to being able to indicate to me, if and when convenient, where I might be able to find some supplementary information on the soldier P.B., who went missing in action at La Harazée on an unknown date in the January of a year I couldn’t make out for funeral wreaths. I thanked the site owner for graciously condescending to read my note and in advance for any help that he or she might feel inclined to offer, apologised for any errors of French that I might have made, and begged him or her to be so kind as to accept the expression of my most distinguished sentiments.
As it turned out, Monsieur C, the website owner, was on holiday, but despite having a limited internet connection, he was super-enthusiastic and super-efficient, managing within 24 hours to turn up l’oncle P’s death certificate and send me an electronic copy, with promises of further information when he should be home and back on broadband.
The death certificate gave me l’oncle P’s inscription number and regiment, and from that I managed to get his full service record. Searching for P’s service record taught me how the database ran searches, so I was able to look up Papa A as well. It took a couple of runs, because it transpired that Papa A was a little older than I had thought, but however fuzzily I searched, I could not find any records of the other brother, L, who was mentioned on the tombstone.
The portal to the military databases also gave access to the civil census microfiches, so I tried looking through those, starting with Papa A’s birth year. Papa A’s surname was an uncommon one, and his mother’s surname was even more unusual, so I was pretty sure that the young couple I found with the right surnames were Papa A’s parents, although the census-taker had got into a fine old muddle with the Christian names, calling Jean-Marie plain ‘Jean’ and somehow managing to turn Cathérine into Jeanne Marie. Following through the census rolls that appeared at five-yearly intervals, I found them – correctly named – with three, then five children, including l’oncle L. He was the fourth child, five years younger than Papa A, who was the eldest. L’oncle P came fifth, four years later. I wondered if there was a child in between L and P who did not survive for very long. I watched Jean-Marie’s (presumably widowed) mother move in her mid-sixties and turn 70, then 75 and 80, by which time there were four boys and three girls aged from 18 to 2 in the family, and they had moved house, to what I sincerely hope were larger premises. Five years after that, the eldest boy and girl had left home and Granny was gone too.
Once I knew l’oncle L’s birth year, I could find his military records, containing terse notes of his having been first posted to the auxiliary service, then sent home to convalesce, because of a chest wound caused by a shell explosion that had left him with a long scar down his left thorax, adhesions to his ribs, and with limited movement in his left arm. A later military fitness board discharged him, because the scar had contracted and was interfering with his breathing, leaving him suffering from emphysema and prone to bronchitis and pneumonia. Now I understand the ‘suites de ses blessures’ mentioned on the gravestone.
While I’ve been delving into my family history, Dr. Sara Ryan has also been wading through documents about the death of a family member this week: paperwork from Southern Health NHS Trust related to the drowning of her son, LB. LB’s preventable death causes his mother rawest, most searing grief, yet her route to obtaining the papers has been far more onerous than mine, and she has not been met with cheery helpfulness, but with obstruction, insensitivity, jobsworthiness and nitpickery. On Monday she was having a major, if unsurprising, wobble, tweeting: Eventually, even the most supportive of supporters will think ‘Blow me, is she still banging on about her son who died an age ago?’
Well, sorry to contradict you and all that, Dr. Ryan, but no. If my great-grand-uncles P and L, who have been dead for ninety-nine-and-a-half and ninety-four years respectively, still matter, are still thought about – and they do, and they are – then LB doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in a steel foundry of falling through the memory net. We, the people who have been part of #justiceforLB, are just as gobsmacked as ever over the outstanding shiteness of Sloven Health; we entertain fantasies of grabbing the CEO of the CPS, and the DPP, by the collars and banging their heads together in rhythm while we chant “When the fuck are you going to pull the finger out?”; we are pitching in ideas for the #LBBill, to try to make life better in future for people with all kinds of disabilities. Life was bound to be harder without the wonderful multicoloured and multifaceted cushion that was #107days, but although we may not be as visible, please believe that LB’s supporters and yours are not going away.
What I said to my then-unknown Uncle on Monday goes for LB as well. We never met you, but we love you.