For many, Remembrance Day is more than a commemoration of the thousands of men who gave their lives for our freedom. Men whose stories we hear but will never get to meet.
For many of us, it marks a personal tribute to the men of our own families whose lives and innocence was lost and whose bravery must never be forgotten. This year marks the centenary of the First World War and the strength and courage of those men is more poignant than ever.
This is my remembrance for the three generations of my family who fought in the First and Second World Wars.
My Great Grandfather, George, was a Dockyard worker who spent his spare time repairing clocks. Like many of the young men he was called up with, he had no idea of what War would be like, of the conditions he would live in and the terrible things he would see. He was proud to be fighting for his country, so he left his home in Devon to become a soldier in WW1. He was part of the machine gun co, spending most of his service in the trenches. He was also involved in the Battle of Somme in 1916 which is most likely where he sustained his injuries. He was lucky not to be one of 58,000 troops killed during the battle.
I don’t remember much about Great Granddad, except that he was very quiet and watchful. He never talked about the war or its effects on him.
My Granddad, Robert, was a bricklayer and keen motorcyclist from Devon. When he was enlisted, he offered his services as a bricklayer. There wasn’t any need for builders so he began infantry training in 1942. He later became a motorcycle Dispatch Rider (military messenger), serving for 5 years in North Africa, Italy and Palestine in several anti-tank regiments. Granddad kept a diary, a very frank account of what he saw and felt during the War. He was badly injured when a passing shell hit a farm house on the road he was walking down. Throwing himself to the ground, he remembers being littered with debris and a sharp pain in his back. It was later found that shrapnel from the shell had gone into his back, leg and shoulder. This was removed in an operation but years later he could still feel small pieces of shrapnel in his knee and finger.
Like many soldiers, Granddad wrote home to his family during the War. We discovered these letters after he’d passed away. There was also a prayer book, with an inscription inside by my Great Grandfather. This little book came safely through World War 1… Darling Bob, hoping you will come safely back to us.
The letters are heartfelt exchanges between a worried mother and a brave son. My Great Gran talks of my Great Grandfather ‘fire watching’ and the ‘Yanks’ nearly running her over in their jeeps. Also the terrible silence as my Great Granddad works on his clocks and she sits with nothing to do but wait and worry. My Grandfather reassures her that he is well, requesting small items of comfort and to pass on his good wishes to friends at home.
On leaving the War, Granddad wrote his diary entries into a book which I typed up for him and he had printed in 2008. Sadly he passed away in 2011, but I will never forget the tall man, who talked modestly about the war, cracked jokes at his own expense and loudly banged the side of the chair in time to the band on the Festival of Remembrance.
My Dad’s Great Uncle John Harris, affectionately known as Jack, left his family in LLanfrynach, Brecon in 1914. He joined the machine gun co and was heavily involved in front line battle. He died in a POW camp in Belgium in Sep 1918 just weeks before the Armistice. My Dad’s Uncle still has the letter from the British Red Cross announcing his death.
In 2010 my family travelled out to France, to find the War Grave of Jack. They talk about the rows of grave stones, looking out over the channel and the way they are beautifully kept by the locals. I think this was a cold realisation of all the lives lost, the Sons, Brothers, Fathers and Grandfathers who will never come home. I am proud of my family’s military history and of the men and women who continue to fight for us. November 11th is a day to remember these people and the way they suffered to give us the freedom we enjoy today. We should never lose sight of that, of what it means to be alive, to share compassion. It’s the only way we can ever truly be thankful.
Published in The Pembrokeshire Herald – 14th November 2014