Over a hundred years ago, on 3rd June 1915, you were killed fighting in France. It was a Thursday.
I’m fifty now, and even if you’d survived the Great War, and the Spanish Flu, chances are we’d never have met — you were just 26 when you died, fifty-two years before I was born. You were my maternal grandmother’s uncle; her father Herbert was your brother. Henstocks became Everys, became Whitfields.
My grandmother’s family were Brethen, and so I guess you were too — but how did you square your faith with the war? A corporal in the Sherwood Foresters, you certainly weren’t just a stretcher bearer. When you signed up, had you heard the phrase from HG Wells, that this was “the war to end all wars?” Was that sufficient motivation? Or was it more a love for King and Country, for the other people of Matlock?
The war hadn’t even been going a year when you were killed. Perhaps you, like many, imagined it would be a quick affair. You probably couldn’t have imagined the incredible final toll, and that it would last another three years, five months and eight days from that fateful Thursday.
Millions died in that war to end all wars; millions more in the flu epidemic that followed it. But you weren’t forgotten. Your niece Eileen, my grandmother, remembered you. Not fussily, not with great ceremony, but always by the fireplace in her home, as I grew up decades later, was the memorial plaque bearing your name, and the message “He died for freedom and honour.”
It saddens me to say that while your memory lived, the hopes and aspirations of many of those sacrificed did not. Twenty one years after the Armistice, the world tumbled into war once more, and an even more shocking catalogue of horrors was unleashed. Eileen’s husband was amongst one of the earliest to arrive at Belsen and see the atrocities committed there.
Over the years there have been more wars, and more atrocities; the world has changed so much since you died — in the same year that my other grandmother was born — but one thing that has not diminished is man’s capacity to do evil to others.
On the hundredth anniversary of your death, my mother and I paid our second visit to your grave in the cemetery in Bailleul, to remember and acknowledge the sacrifice you made. And this year, 103 years on, and exactly 100 years since the end of the war to end all wars, I’m wearing a white poppy, in the hope that the peace you fought for will, one day, finally come.
Your great, great nephew,