Welcome to my blog, where I take pleasure in words and pictures, be they my own or those of others. I'm a creative individual, and the crafty side I explore on my 'other blog', Picking Up The Threads, which I hope you'll visit too. I'm sure you understand that I have sole copyright of my original work and any of my contributions, so please ask if you want to use them. A polite request is rarely refused. So, as they used to say on the BBC's 'Listen With Mother' radio programme, many years ago: "Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin."

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Unknown Soldier

As this Sunday is Remembrance Sunday I wanted to complete my tributes to my great uncles who died in WW1. I wrote about the eldest, Edward, in The Last Hundred Days and the middle one, George, in Dulce Et Decorum Est. Now it's the turn of Arthur, the youngest of the three but the first to lose his life in April 1916 at the age of twenty-one. Tragically, George was to die only five months later on the Somme in September of that year, two days after his twenty-third birthday. The family's relief that Edward had survived the war was shortlived, as he succumbed to pneumonia following Spanish Influenza, whilst still in France, in February 1919. The only boy left was little Charlie. In between were my Gran, Edith, the eldest girl, and four other older sisters; Ethel, Ellen, Mary and Mildred. Louisa, the baby of the family, was born in 1914. As you can imagine it really was a case of 'Charlie is my Darling' for the one remaining boy.When my grandparents produced Billy, the first grandchild, jut four months after Edward's death, there would have been much family rejoicing.

I've called Arthur the unknown soldier, simply because the family knows so very little about him. In my previous posts I described how my Gran would talk about her beloved older brothers, but as I was a child myself I didn't retain any information about them as individuals. If you read the other two posts you'll recall that many years ago, whilst stationed with the RAF in Germany, we visited the WW1 battlefields. At that time I tried to find out as much as I could without the benefit of modern sources available on the internet. All my enquiries were made the old-fashioned way, writing many letters and waiting patiently for replies. Arthur remains something of a mystery as we have so far not been able to add much more to what I gleaned then. He is listed in the 1911 census but there is no other information. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, writing to me in March 1984, confirmed that:

 "Private Arthur Brandon, 17373, 8th Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment, died on 19th April 1916. After the war his grave was among those The Army Graves Service were unable to trace and he is therefore commemorated, by name, on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Belgium.The names of the men of the Bedfordshire Regiment are carved on Panels 31 and 33. We also have the additional information that he was born, enlisted. whilst living at the time in Watford, Hertfordshire."

The Imperial War Museum in London wrote to confirm that Arthur's name was in the offical publication: 'Soldiers Died in the Great War' and kindly photocopied a few pages for me of a brief unpublished typescript, the War Diary of 8th (Service) Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment, 21st August 1915-16th February 1918, outlining operations on which the battalion was involved.

"As you see the diary reports no soldiers killed in action on 19 April, and it should be noted that inaccuries or delays in reporting men killed or missing were not uncommon. 8 Battalion was serving with 16 Brigade, 6 Division at the time of Brandon's death."



The Imperial War Museum told me that 8 Division was serving with 16 Brigade, 6 Division at the time of Arthur's death and recommended 'A Short History of the 6th Division' by T.O.Marden (1920). I was unable to obtain this in 1984, but now, thanks to the wonderful Project Gutenberg, I found it immediately. In his preface Marden stated that the reason for the book's publication was all who served with the Division wokd have a record to show that they belonged to a Division which played no inconspicuous part in the Great War. Every copy sold was to help provide battlefield memorials in France and Flanders. Here is the passage which adds a little more detail to war diaries above.


"....operations near Turco Farm and Morteldje Estaminet on 19th-22nd April 1916. Certain trenches, D20 and 21 and Willow Walk, were much overlooked by High  Command Redoubt, some 150 yards away. The Germans throughout the 19th April heavily bombarded these trenches, and succeeded in seizing them at night. One company 8th Bedfords and two companies Y. and L*. delivered a counter-attack in the early hours of 20th April, but could not retake the position. The Brigadier-General therefore decided to bombard them steadily throughout the 21st, and recapture them on the night 21st/22nd April with three companies of the K.S.L.I., then in Brigade Reserve. This was brilliantly accomplished in spite of the very heavy going, and the line firmly re-established, but with the loss of Lt.-Col. Luard, commanding K.S.L.I.,** who died of wounds. It was found that the enemy had dug good new trenches in several places, and equipped them with steel loop-hole plates, and these were occupied thankfully by our men. The general state of the trenches, commanded as they were by the enemy's positions, in the water-logged Ypres Salient during the winter of 1915-1916 defies description, and all praise must be given to the regimental officers and men for their hard work and cheerfulness under most depressing conditions.

*  York and Lancaster
** The King's Shropshire Light Infantry

Was Arthur the one OR (Other Rank) killed on the 18th or was he one of the two wounded on the 19th and subsequently died of his wounds. Perhaps he was one of the 32 who died in the early hours of the 20th or of the 97 'missing, believed killed' which usually meant they were blown to pieces and there were no identifiable mortal remains. It was a day of significant losses. After heavy bombardment the Germans attacked and gained a footing in three of the trenches. The following day these were re-taken and consolidated, which highlights the utter pointlessness of trench warfare. Throughout the war this was repeated on a much larger scale where small advances would be made at unimaginabe cost to human life, only to be lost again within weeks, sometimes days.


Our visit to Ypres was memorable in many ways but the highlight was locating Arthur's name on the Menin Gate war memorial. That evening we stood in silent and respectful contemplation as the traffic along the Menin Road came to a halt and the Last Post was sounded by members of the local voluntary Fire Service. This takes place every evening at 8.00 p.m. and is extremely moving. Many examples of the ceremony can be viewed on YouTube.

We who are left, how shall we look again
Happily on the sun, or feel the rain,
Without remembering they who went
Ungrudgingly, and spent 
Their all for us, loved too the sun and rain?


A bird among the rain-wet lilac sings -
But we, how shall we turn to little things,
And listen to the birds and winds and streams
Made holy by their dreams,
Nor feel the heart-break in the heart of things?

Wilfred Gibson, 'Lament'

For more stories and pictures from the past go to Sepia Saturday

27 comments:

  1. One of the joys of getting back home after so long away and getting back to the internet after so long off-line is to catch up with posts such as this. Such quality, such interest, such good writing : blogging at its best.

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  2. Hello Marilyn:
    This is a very poignant reminder of the horror and futility of war. No=one who has seen the cemeteries maintained by the War Graves Commission cannot but be moved at the scale of such a tragic waste of human life. Your account of your great uncle makes this all the more personal and real.

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  3. A very moving piece, Marilyn. I am impressed you found out so much.

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  4. Whenever I see a picture of a soldier, from any country or any time, I look at him as some one's son. It's an involuntary reaction. I just imagine how much his mother must have loved him. No different with Arthur. I'm so glad you took the time to track him down and honor his memory. He deserved that.

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  5. A beautifully written tribute.

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  6. You have lovingly done your best to fill in the blanks on your "unknown soldier." It's the best any of us can do. Your post inspires me to start using important dates on the calendar as a blogging opportunity to honor members of my family the way you have done.

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  7. The horrors of the WWI trench warfare are unimaginable. Last year I've visited Ieper (Ypres), it was indeed very moving.

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  8. Alan has already summed it up, neatly, Nell. A well researched, well written, and moving post.

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  9. Strange - I have known about WW1 all my life, and yet the older I get the sadder I feel about those many beloved men who lost their lives so needlessly and stupidly.

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  10. It's so nice that you have introduced us to Arthur and told us his story. It must have been so moving to actually see his name on that memorial.
    Nancy

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  11. What can I say? You wrote a very impressive post about one of the most terrible wars ever. I'm sure that in 2014 much more information will be made available on the internet. Hopefully also about Arthur's circumstances.

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  12. Your tribute to Arthur was very well done. I too think it is important to honor all those men who have fought and perished, especially the ones who have been forgotten. Your story ensures that he will not be.

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  13. I'll bet you were thrilled when you saw the memorial with Arthur's name on it. It was nice to get to know him through your post.
    Nancy

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  14. Beautifully written and researched piece. I will miss you next week on Sepia Saturday. It is hard to imagine a Saturday without you!

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  15. The trench warfare really does sound pointless. I can't really understand how they could justify it. It's nice you were able to find out so much about Arthur and see his name on the memorial.

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  16. A thoroughly absorbing and emotional post, Nell. After having seen so many WDYTYA episodes that ended up on the battlefields, I could visualize exactly where and how his death took place.

    The "lament" poem is stunning.

    Kat

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  17. This was a memorable post and a wonderful tribute to your uncle Arthur. I know how you felt when you saw the Memorial. I am glad you dug around and found out more about him, buried long ago, when he gave his all for defense.

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  18. Hi Marilyn. You have given us another remarkable in depth post full of interesting details. It is sad that he died so young, but it is so good of you to tell his story.

    Kathy M.

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  19. You've done serious digging and you honoured your Uncle Arthur very well. Thanks for sharing.

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  20. Oh, what a lovely tribute you've written to Arthur, as well as to all who've served in the military. And I love the poem at the end too. Very touching indeed!

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  21. A lovely tribute indeed. My such good sources of information. It simple amazes me that even through all that I've read or studied in school already, that I can read a lovely detailed piece as this and discover new things. It was perfect!

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  22. Quite a bit of work done here and well worth it. The individual stories are what are so prized. I have been reading Ken Follette's Trilogy of the 20th century which is dead on historically but woven into fiction. My kind of reading.
    The first in the triology is Fall of the Giants which is from 1900 up to the aftermath of WWI.
    QMM

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  23. A very fitting way to observe Remembrance Day by honoring a young man's sacrifice. Sadly in the US we have lost this connection to the real origin of the day, by changing it to Veterans Day. The Great War was a horrible tragedy for the world, an era, and for families like yours. Thank you for sharing the story with us.

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  24. Just getting around to a few I missed and glad I made the effort. Your Gran's family lost so much. I can't imagine.

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  25. Most appropriate for Remembrance Day, even if details are still sketchy.
    La Guerre des Tranchées, like most wars, was dreadfully costly in human lives,
    a detail often cast aside in view of the larger goal of winning the war.
    Most likely, only friends and family are left to properly grieve for those
    gone now. You did this well for Arthur today, no matter when exactly he met his doom.

    Thanks for doing this.
    :/~
    HUGZ

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  26. Wow.....I felt very emotional while reading this, Nell. Arthur, too, will remain in my thoughts in future remembrance days.

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  27. Very interested to read your account. My great-grandfather served in the Y&L and was in these trenches at the same time. He died 2 months later and I have been through a similar investigation to yourself. I shall look out for 'A Short History of the 6th Division.' Incidentally, I recently acquired a copy (on the recommendation of the Flanders museum in Ypres) of a biopic of 'Rudolf Lange', a German Officer who gives an account of this time from the German perspective. He was an artist and made some sketches of the view overlooking the British position.
    Kind Regards
    Adrian

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