Sunday, August 03, 2014

The Long Shadow

There must be very few families in Britain whose lives weren't touched by the First World War. The story of my great-uncle Fred isn't particularly remarkable, but it is no less tragic than any other.

Frederick Robert Brown was the second oldest of 12 siblings. His parents ran a corner shop in Isleworth, where the children were expected to help out from an early age. By all accounts, Fred was a remarkable young man who enjoyed rowing on the Thames, singing in the local church and being a surrogate parent to his younger brothers and sisters. My grandmother worshipped him.

He matriculated at the Isleworth County School and got his first job working as an office clerk at the Thames Lighterage Company, at Brentford Docks. In his spare time, he studied French in Hammersmith - a decision that may have been his undoing.

When Britain declared war on Germany, 100 years ago today, Fred was keen to do his bit. He went to the local recruiting office and was assigned to the Royal West Kent regiment. He was very proud of the "West Kents" and sent his sister this postcard:

Fred Brown trained at Shoreham, Sussex and his exemplary conduct and knowledge of French meant that he was promoted quickly and sent to the Front before many of his peers. On September 8th, 1915, he posted this card to his family:

Less than a fortnight after this postcard was sent, Fred was killed in the Battle of Loos. There was no body, so he was officially listed as missing. The family took the lack of a body as a sign of hope.

A letter from Fred's pal, Charlie Fowler, reinforced their belief that Fred was still alive:

"I made several enquiries from wounded fellows, that were with me at Boulogne. They went into action on Sept 25th. Fred was seen to be hit and fall while they were advancing over open ground.

Later wound
ed or killed they do not know, as when one of the sergeants helped to collect the casualties the next day, Fred was not among them, as the ground that they had been on at the time had been counter-attacked by the Germans and several of Fred's company had been taken prisoners.

I bel
ieved myself that he is a prisoner. He's been wounded, if he is."

Fred's family waited anxiously for news, but none came.

My grandmother was closer to Fred than anyone else in the family and she couldn't reconcile herself with the possibility that her brother was no longer alive. As the war progressed, she contracted a mysterious "disease of the blood" and had to be sent to a sanitorium in Lancing.

In hindsight, it is clear that my grandmother had a breakdown. By all accounts, this once carefree young girl was never the same again and I remember her as a bitter, disappointed woman, who refused any attempts to help her.

My grandmother married in 1925 and seemed to have a successful marrige, but was unable to show any real affection towards my father, who became a deeply insecure adult.

I often wonder what sort of person my father would have been if he'd been shown more love as a child. He was a good man, but very highly strung and desperate for approval from others. His mother never showed any interest or pride in his achievements.

My father's anxious temperament grew worse with age. High blood pressure was a constant problem and it was no surprise when my father had a succession of heart attacks, spending the last 10 years of his life virtually housebound. Perhaps it's fanciful of me to trace it all back to the death of Uncle Fred, but I can't help seeing a cause and effect.

The First World War has cast a long shadow on many families' lives. I am planning on going to Loos in September 2015, for the 100th anniversary of the battle. I presume there'll be some sort of commemoration,

I will be there to honour Fred, but also the people he left behind and the lives they never lived.


MikeP said...

That's a curious grandfather was also killed at the Battle of Loos, on September 29. He was 26 and in the Royal Fusiliers. They never found him either - he has no grave, but his name's on the wall at the Loos Memorial, otherwise known as Dud Corner Cemetery, along with all the others they never found. Presumably your relative is up there too. I still haven't given up hope that he'll be ploughed up one day - it seems to happen quite regularly.

My father was 2 when his father was killed. My grandmother never remarried and was a widow for 58 years.

Interesting idea about going there for the centenary - not so easy from Australia, but I'm tempted!

nilly said...

Yes, most of us have a Fred - and that was often their name too! Mine was.
Your poignant story reminds me of why I am so fascinated by genealogy - I want to see if I can find links and reasons, echoing down the years and resulting in us and our children.

Universal Acknowledgement said...

Thank you, that was very moving. I hadn't thought about the sheer length of the shadow before.

Roget said...

This is a wonderful invocation of your great-uncle Fred, Steerforth. It does superbly what is too often not done - brings the human being back to breathing life and out of the marble listings and pious ceremonial. On a day when there will be much of the latter, his story plainly told with all its consequences, cuts to the living heart of our national loss. Thank you.

joan.kyler said...

I think we expect too much of our soldiers and their families. We expect them to 'do their duty' and then, if they're lucky enough to come home, to 'get on with things'.

I see it today (in the US) all the time. So many men and women, and their families, damaged physically or emotionally, left to try to deal with the horrors of war on their own. I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like, and I can't thank them all enough. We must never forget all the Uncle Freds.

Canadian Chickadee said...

These stories are so sad, and sadder still, all too common. My husband's father was conscripted during the Great War, told where to report, and to bring his own horse. He survived, but never talked about it, and none of us know where exactly he served.

One of Rob's aunts was engaged, but her fiance was killed in the Somme. She never married, and spent her life as a spinster, sharing a house with her sister and giving piano lessons.

Another family connection lost two young men to the war, brothers of his grandfather. He has two "dead man's pennies" made from shrapnel and presented to the surviving families after the war, hanging on his wall.

But what's saddest is that mankind never seems to learn, and keeps on doing the same stupid things over and over and over....

And on that cheery note, I will leave you. Much love and hugs to you and your family, Steerforth.

Ian Wolcott said...

A worthy and lovely tribute.

Judith said...

My grandfather also died but at Cambrai in Nov 1917 when my dad was 2 months old. My grandfather had had Xmas leave 1916 ! I often wonder if without that respite of war my Dad, I and all my descendants might not have existed. My grandmother also had 52 years as a widow and my Dad grew up without a father. Long shadows indeed but not all bad.

Steerforth said...

Mike - Our lives seem to be curiously linked in several ways. Was it your mother's father?

If you can't make it from Australia, I'll light a candle for your grandfather.

Nilly - I think the tricky aspect of this is that skeletons were kept firmly in the cupboard in the old days, so there are many family secrets that remain hidden.

Universal Acknowledgement - I suppose I should also be grateful to that long shadow, as I wouldn't be here now if events had taken a different turn.

Roger - Thanks. Some of the most poignant things I've come across in my job are the post-1918 titles on spiritualism, in which bereaved parents have "spoken" to their sons in the afterlife. It highlights the tragedy of the War in a way that statistics and memorials fail to.

Joan - Yes, men just returned to civilian life and were expected to get on with it. People wanted to forget the War and ex-servicemen weren't treated with the understanding and respect that they deserve. My grandfather got a couple of medals but no offer of work. He managed to find a job on the London Underground, where he was electrocuted, with second degree burns.

He was told that if he went to hospital to have his burns treated, he'd have to take the time as his two weeks' annual leave. Some respect for a man who'd been shot at and gassed for his country!

Carol - I also had two spinster aunts, whose sweethearts were killed in the war. They were lovely women and adored children.

Like you, I feel very frustrated about our inability to learn from history. I can't bear watching the news at the moment, because it's so painful to learn that so many innocent people are suffering at the hands of fanatics. At the risk of sounding banal, I don't think any idea is more important than the life of a child.

Ian - Thank you. By the way, I've read your piece on awful poets, which reminds me of a few self-published gems I must post.

Judith - Yes, thank goodness for Christmas leave!

I feel haunted by the many lives that never existed because of the War. How many great people did we lose?

Canadian Chickadee said...

Amen, Steerforth. I couldn't agree with you more. xoxox

MikeP said...

Yes, they do, don't they? No, it was my father's father.

I checked - your great-uncle is up on the wall at Dud Corner. Have you ever been there? Strange, bleak place in the middle of a vast plain on the Lens-Bethune road. When you look out across the landscape you can sense what hell it must have been. I've just discovered that Loos is actually pronounced Loss.

modern dog said...

A beautiful, melancholy entry, Steerforth. I'm an American, so presumably I'm a bit more removed from the Great War, but I did once meet a man (an Australian) whose grandfather was killed at Passchendaele. The grandfather was the postmaster in his small town (in New South Wales, I believe), and didn't have to go, but he was a believer in Empire, and so he went.

Have you ever read the Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker? She writes of such things, and I think you would appreciate her books (if appreciate is the right word).

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Thank you for that.

I've just been searching the Web for any trace of my grandmother's brothers. She was one of 15. I don't even know the names of all her siblings, let alone what happened to them. My grandad was one of 10, and most became vicars. One feisty sister was a missionary in Jerusalem. My other grandfather spoke French and German and had a desk job.

Chris Matarazzo said...

Thanks for sharing that, Steerforth. Sad and profound, but also such a compelling look at real history. I don't think it is fanciful at all...ripples in time are very real.