Ending my countdown to the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1.
In May 1917 Walter was transferred to 15th Divisional Signals Company (Royal Engineers) with all of the qualified signallers from 70th and 71st Brigades RFA and remained attached to 15th Division for the remainder of the war. With 15th Div Signals he saw service during 1917 in the Arras offensive and the 3rd Battle of Ypres, better known as the bloodbath of Passchendaele. Then in 1918 he was back on the Somme, later at the Marne and then with the vanguard in the advance through Artois. Amazingly he served three and a half years in the most notorious battles of the war and never got a scratch.
As a postscript to this, the 15th Division ended the war at a place in Belgium called Aubechies. There is nothing remarkable in that except that it is just 15 miles north-west of Mons where the British Army first went into action in August 1914. After four years, millions of deaths and destruction beyond belief, to end up right back where you started. Can you imagine what they must have thought?
In the War Diary of 71st Brigade RFA, the end of the war is documented with classic understatement:
Transcript: 11/11/18 - Bde moved in morning to AUBECHIES. Armistice signed. Hostilities ceased at 1100.
12/11/18 - At rest.
I think they deserved it….
But now I will finish my week’s history lecture on a melancholy note and the fate of the older brother, Alfred.
Alfred was 34 at the start of the war with a wife and 5 children – quite what he thought he was doing volunteering I have no idea. But after training he arrived in France attached to 1/7th Field Company, Royal Engineers, the day before they embarked on ships at Marseilles to sail to Egypt and then on to Salonika.
There, the biggest killer wasn’t the Turkish Army but malaria. The veterans referred to the campaign of the 3 Ms – mountains, mules and mosquitoes. It isn’t clear what happened to Alfred but there was no major action at the time of his death so there is every chance he was one of 162,517 victims of the disease.
His family heard of his death later that month and published the following tributes in the local paper, The Portsmouth Evening News on 26th Oct 1916.
After the war his name was engraved with many others on the town’s war memorial and is still there on West Street in Fareham, Hampshire. The inscription on the cross reads:
“1914-1919 the Men Whom This Monument Commemorates Were Numbered Among Those Who At the Call of King and Country Left All That Was Dear To Them, Endured Hardship and Faced Danger Finally Passing From the Sight of Men By the Path of Duty and Self-Sacrifice
Giving Their Own Lives That Others Might Live In Freedom
Let Those Who Come After See To It That Their Names Be Not Forgotten”
So that’s it – the story of my family in the “Great War”. I imagine almost every family can tell stories similar to these. The important thing is that they aren’t forgotten. Too many gave up too much for us to forget. And on this centenary of the end of the war to end all wars we find the lessons still not really learned.
This is my own montage based on a famous trench photograph of WW1 and my own photographs of Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres and the Australian National War Memorial in Canberra.
Thank you for reading.
David Swatton, November 2018