Tuesday, August 11, 2009
The Old Front Line
My brother and I are walking up a country lane just to the South West of Grandcourt, a tiny hamlet in Picardy. It's all nodding, golden corn and drowsy hedges now, but the gravel under our feet is full of rusty shards of iron, just this morning washed out of the fields by heavy rain. On the 23rd of august 1918 the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, The East Yorkshire Regiment and the 15th Battalion Durham Light Infantry crossed this point in their attempt to retake the nearby village of Miraumont, then held by the German army in their desperate scrabble to landgrab in the final acts of the Great War. We're here because among the Durhams was our grandad's eldest brother, Joe. Somewhere around here Joe copped what is described in bald military terms on his service record as 'Gunshot Wound - Neck (Mild)'. He was a rifle bomber - firing grenades from his Lee-Enfield - and had been in the army only since March. Despite the appraisal of his injury, the 'mild' wound was enough to keep Joe out of the front line for the remainder of the war. Or so we think. Joe died about 20 years ago, and in common with most returning veterans never breathed a word about his experiences. It's only due to luck that we know these meagre facts. Joe's military records were among the few saved when Somerset House was bombed in World War 2, and I discovered the singed microfiche copies when I was digging around on the National Archives website last year. Of another relative - our Great-Grandmother's brother Ernest - no such records exist. All we have is a locket containing his portrait in the uniform of a Royal Field Artillery gunner, and the handkerchief embroidered 'To My Dear Mother' he brought back. Ernest was also wounded - by a bullet that went through his leg and into his horse, and he was deaf as a farm gatepost thanks to the guns. Where did he serve? What did he do? We'll never know.