On 17th October 1914, standing just five feet five and one-quarter inches tall, with blue eyes, fair hair and a ruddy complexion, a 19 years and 184 days old almost-still-boy, a joiner by trade, enlisted into the British Army and became a Private in the 11th Service Battalion The Border Regiment (Lonsdales). His name was John and he was my grandfather’s brother.
Amongst the few mementoes we have of John are the remains of two letters. One, written whilst training at Codford, Wiltshire, and written to his brother contains the following lines:
“I have been looking for a letter from you ever since I came back from my leave, but maybe you won’t have time to write, but anyway no news is good news isn’t it … We are having fairly nice weather here now but it’s getting rather cold back end like … How is Grandma’s cold getting on, I hope it’s about alright again, tell her I will write soon.”
An ordinary young man writing home about ordinary things.
Only the last page of the second letter, written to his stepmother, still exists. I believe it was the last letter he ever wrote, which makes these lines even more poignant:
“I suppose you haven’t any idea when the war is going to finish have you because we haven’t, but there’s one conversation Jeannie, “it can’t last forever” can it … I wrote to the School Master a week or two since … well he hasn’t wrote back yet, but maybe he won’t have time to write to soldiers in fact some people don’t believe in it, but never mind, what the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve … P.S. We are going to the trenches tomorrow Sunday for a few days and then I think we are going away back for a rest, but I will tell you all the news later.”
Along with over 500 other men from the 800 in the Lonsdale battalion, John participated in the first day of the bloodiest battle in human history – The Battle of the Somme. That day, 1st July 1916 saw 57 470 British casualties of which 19 240 were killed. John was one of them. By the end of the battle on 18th November 2016, of the more than one million men wounded or killed, there were 419 654 British officially dead, missing or wounded. 72 000 of the British dead have no known graves.
I find the numbers impossible to grasp, but each statistic is the bookmark to the story of one life that tells its own ordinary story, a story that ended far too abruptly.
My son, a historian who now works at Cumbria’s Museum of Military Life, was given an amazing opportunity by the local ITV news channel. They took him to the Somme, where he became the first member of our family to visit John’s grave. You can watch the moving report here.
When I learned about John’s story, just a few years ago, I wanted to write something based on what I’d discovered. Currently, I am working on a novel about a twelve-year-old boy, which though set during WW2, draws on the legacy of 1st July 1916. I have also started work on another, contemporary, novel that also draws on the period of WW1. As I write, and as I remember my great uncle John and the thousands upon thousands of other lives lived and lost in that period of our world’s history, I know with certainty that not one of their stories can be called ordinary, that not one of their stories should be forgotten.