For me, the First World War was something that happened to other people. There were no accounts of family members’ involvement in any battles; no Victory medals proudly on display, or ornaments made out of old shell cases, fashioned by a bored Tommy. In fact, no one really seemed to speak of the Great War where I lived. My parents didn’t speak of Grandfathers who went off to war. I grew up thinking that you had to be special to have a family member in the war – maybe we were too common? Both of my grandfathers were dead and my grandmothers spoke little of their childhoods.
Paternal Grandma Kate was born in 1908 so was 8-10 years old when her father was apparently gassed at Ypres (all I’ve managed to glean so far – still conducting research). Maternal Grandma Beatrice was born in 1915 whilst her father was in France. Her middle name was Louvain, presumably after the place in Belgium whose population was the victim of war atrocities and which was razed to the ground. One of the first casualties of the War to end all Wars. Louvain had been ransacked months before Beatrice’s father Arthur Greenhill went to France.
I have O levels and A levels in British and European History. I was taught not one single nugget of information about either the First or Second World Wars. For a post 60’s UK generation, the fight for freedom had been won long ago; we could vote for whoever, had a free health service, free education, a welfare state and an acute knowledge of our rights. We had scant little appreciation of what was sacrificed to live in our world. We made jokes about old people always going on about the war and couldn’t see the relevance of any of it to our lives.
I remember an old man with one leg who used to wheel himself around my local shopping centre in the 70’s in one of those bath chairs with a steering wheel. He was always alone. I guess he was a war veteran. And I remember wandering whether the Haig of the annual poppy day was a distant relative of one of my teachers – known as Mr Hague (the only Hague I was familiar with).
So it was to my surprise when, 20 years later, courtesy of ancestry.co.uk, I discovered that my maternal great grandfather, Arthur Henry Greenhill fought in the Somme. To my great astonishment, and thanks to the British Army WW1 Service records, I was able to discover which regiment he was in. He was in the Twentieth Light Division. At the beginning of the war, in 1915, he was in the Cyclist Division. This was later incorporated into the First Tank Division (I guess war machinery moved on very quickly from being blown up on a bicycle, to being incinerated in a tank). I was even more surprised to discover that he actually survived the war and came home, to live until he was 82. I never met him, he was never really spoken of and I guess there’s some family stuff going on there…
The internet is a wonderful thing. Through the vast numbers of websites available, containing information regarding soldiers of the First World War, I was able to obtain a map (Mr and Mrs Holt’s Battle Map of the Somme). This, together with the publication of “The History of the Twentieth (Light) Division by Captain VE Inglefield (an intriguing compilation of official records and field notes) meant that I was able to follow the course of my Great Grandfather’s battle, as he and his companions dug in the mud, up to their waists in blood, sweat and tears as they fought to free French villages such as Guillemont from the German army. Moreover, I was able to visit those villages. So today, 100 years later I found myself in Guillemont, north east of Amiens; a scene of heavy fighting and loss of life, in the middle of the Somme…
As far as I am aware, I am the first member of my family since Great Granddad Arthur, to visit the French fighting fields. I am surprised at how strongly I feel for these innocent young men of all nations, caught up in something of which they must have had such little understanding. Such sorrow. And such enormous pride. Thank you Great Granddad, for what you and your comrades did for me and my fellow citizens. I salute you xx