Welcome to my blog, where I take pleasure in words and pictures, be they my own or those of others. I'm a creative individual, and the crafty side I explore on my 'other blog', Picking Up The Threads, which I hope you'll visit too. I'm sure you understand that I have sole copyright of my original work and any of my contributions, so please ask if you want to use them. A polite request is rarely refused. So, as they used to say on the BBC's 'Listen With Mother' radio programme, many years ago: "Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin."

Friday, 1 July 2011

Dulce Et Decorum Est.................


George Brandon 1893-1916
The title is taken from Wilfred Owen’s PoemThe picture is of a good-looking young man, standing proudly in his Grenadier Guards dress uniform, which would have been a deep red; he must have looked very dashing. In reality it is a very tiny sepia picture, and the oval shape is due to the fact that it was placed on one side of a gold locket worn by my grandmother. He was the middle one of her three older brothers, George, and he was killed on the Somme in 1916, two days after his twenty-third birthday. Today is the 95th anniversary of the start of the great Somme offensive which was to claim so many lives.

The mine at Hawthorn Ridge
At 7.20 a.m. on this day 1st July in 1916, the mine at Hawthorn Ridge was detonated and one of the costliest offensives of World War One began. Approximately 20% of the fighting force were lost by the end of that first day, and the succeeding months were to see many more lives lost and families torn apart by grief at the loss of a brother, husband or son.

I know very little about my great-uncle and have written previously about my regret at not questioning my grandmother further when I had the opportunity. In 1984 I was living in Germany where my husband was stationed with the RAF, and that Easter my mother joined us for a visit of the WW1 battlefields, and an attempt to locate the last resting place of her three uncles. I was living at home with two small children and had the time to do some research into military records. I didn’t have the luxury of the internet then and everything was achieved through a laborious series of letters to regimental headquarters, museums and so on. People were very helpful and we were able to locate the grave of one brother and the inscription of the other two, who had no known graves; one on the Menin Gate in Ypres, and one on the Thiepval Memorial, allowing us to pay our respects and remind ourselves of the great sacrifice paid by so many.

George’s name is inscribed on the magnificent Thiepval Memorial at Pozieres
There is something of a mystery over his initial but that is a story for another day







George served in the 2nd Battalion and this photograph is the only other one we have of him, standing on the top row, far left.
By the time we undertook our pilgrimage my own grandmother had also died and the remaining great-aunts had very hazy memories as they were themselves very young when their brothers died. George’s younger sister, Mary, wrote to me that he had been in the police force but was on reserve and was called up to join the Guards. We don’t know if he was a naughty schoolboy or a good scholar, whether or not he had a sweetheart, or how he liked to spend his leisure time. We do know he was a much loved son and brother, from the warmth and sadness with which my grandmother always spoke of him. Again, it is my privilege to honour his memory through this page.

He was to die later in the lengthy Somme offensive, on September 15th 1916. The archivist at the Regimental Headquarters in London, kindly copied the relevant pages from a three-volume history written by their Lieutenant Colonel. It gives a vivid blow-by-blow account of the days leading up to George’s death, when the regiment suffered particularly heavy losses. With the advent of the internet it is now so much easier to research family history and there are vast amounts of information available, but I treasure those yellowing photocopies of over a quarter a century ago. Re-reading the account chills the blood. Mistakes were made, moments of indecision cost countless lives, a foolhardy  and almost comical bravery was shown by some of the officers which is reminiscent of those poignant final scenes of Blackadder Goes Forth. I’m not going to go into the details of the individual assaults but I would like to share with you some of the pictures drawn by this account, which have helped sketch in some details of two days in the life of my great-uncle. He wasn’t an unknown soldier but to some extent he was a man of mystery. We know so little of him and he has no known grave, but at least we can place him approximately in those last few days, sharing the hardships and comradeship of his fellow soldiers. If you don’t like descriptions of war then read no further, but if you want to hear of tales of bravery and selflessness, this would be a good place to begin. I would urge you to visit the beautifully kept war cemeteries and battlefield memorials, and marvel at the sheer magnitude of the slaughter of young men on both sides of the conflict. The skylark does indeed sing over their graves. Poppies do indeed grow in the open fields. Read the words below and remember those who fell.

John Oxenham’s poem at the entrance to Beaumont Hamel, speaks for many.

September 14th: The men had already been three days in the trenches, with little sleep. It was a bitterly cold at night and the men, who had no greatcoats, suffered much. Detailed instructions for the attack next day were given. The assembly was to march in absolute silence, no smoking, no lights shown and between dawn and zero hour (6.00 a.m.) no movement. 'All men will carry two bandoliers S.A.A. and two Mills bombs.This must be made up before leaving the trenches. Every third man will carry a shovel, every fourth man a pick. Two days’ rations will be carried.


September 15th: At 5.00 a.m. the tanks were seen moving slowly on the left flank of the Brigade, but they apparently did not arouse suspicion or attract any fire. At zero hour the battalions started off and and the leaders of the assault were ‘mown down’.
Lieut.- Colonel J Campbell knowing that in the 'infernal roar of rifle and machine-gun fire  no commands could possibly be heard’ had used a hunting-horn, which pierced the din and allowed the men to follow. 


The casualties in the 2nd Battalion were considerably increased by the fact that the tank which should have passed over the place where the machine guns were posted, never reached its objective, and consequently a gap of 100 yards was left where it should have gone.


Lieut.- Colonel Crespigny was easily distinguished as he marched along, as he wore a forage cap in place of a helmet. On reaching Ginchy 'a heavy barrage came down on the men, huge shells bursting at the rate of one a second were shooting showers of mud in every direction and the noise was deafening’ There were again a considerable number of casualties.


A series of blunders followed, and in order to take a trench it was necessary to deploy into a line. In so doing they lost very heavily. ‘Our creeping barrage had, so to speak, run away, and there was now no artillery support of any kind’. 


Go to Sepia Saturday for some more Twentieth Century stories.

19 comments:

  1. Nell, this is a brilliant piece of which you should be very proud.

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  2. Thanks Nell, a brilliant post. Such a terrible tragedy and waste of life, but they still gave their lives regardless. The thought of men being 'mown down' gives an idea of the horror of it.

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  3. This is so very sad. This is a good memorial for your great uncle.

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  4. I don't like war or the slaughter of young men, but I do like reading about them.

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  5. What a magnificent post : so much information all of which builds, along with the images, into a story that is memorable for everyone.

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  6. I really enjoyed this post. Like you, I wish I'd asked more questions when my grandmother was alive. We regularly drive through Picardie and it's time I stopped and looked at some of the places with the all too familiar names.

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  7. Wonderful post - good to remember the sacrifice those young men made - and equally the effect on their families back home. Thank you for sharing this.
    Liz

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  8. Exceptional post this week filled with history. Poignant but I enjoyed every word and what photos....

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  9. Very touching and informative post. I like that the top photo was cut in to a circle to fit in a locket...very poignant.

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  10. A wonderful tribute! So many of the photos of the Great War deserve stories like this but they are sadly lost like so many other wars. Will our current conflicts get the same treatment in a hundred years?

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  11. To see George's youthful, smiling, confident face - and then to read the rest - is absolutely heartbreaking. You can't help but feel so much empathy for these young men who had so much ahead of them and whose lives were cut short. And you can't help but wonder what they would have become.

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  12. The soldiers who have been killed in recent wars will leave a wealth of readily available information about them behind. Everything else is the same, bravery and perhaps a little naivete taking young men and women's futures from them, leaving more questions than answers. An exceptionally well written and presented post (as usual) it's great that your children and grandchildren will be able to keep your family's history alive.

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  13. I feel sure that George would be proud of what you've written. It's a shame that this post isn't required reading in all schools. I enjoyed the link to Wilfred Owen's poem, I'd forgotten how powerful it is; I've not read it since I was at school.
    I've felt for a long time that the First World War signalled a huge change in society, people no longer accepted that those in authority were always right.
    Thank you for posting this...

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  14. nice of you to do this. it is important to remember. i am hoping there will be more stories.

    HUGZ

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  15. When I visited Thiepval Memorial almost four years ago, I found it very moving, although to be honest I'm not a great fan of the architecture of this particular monument. I found Beaumont Hamel particularly interesting, and very pretty, with its smaller ceneteries nestled around the battlefield landscape.

    I thought you might like to see another view of the memorial, in the distance, taken from the Pozieres British Cemetery.

    Thank you for sharing the photographs, the background and the extracts from the unit history. A moving story.

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  16. An excellent piece. One of the most moving moments of my life was standing under the Menin Gate while the Last Post was played. Remembering it still sends shivers down my spine.

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  17. George Had Nice Kind Eyes.
    The War Graves Are Beautiful Still Places.Yes, It Sounds Like You Have Even More To Find.
    A Beautiful Memorial Post.

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  18. You were very right in your comment on ScotSue's post. The stories of the ordinary men fighting and falling in battle is so poignant, and tragic. The losses were fierce and the mental damage to those who survived was just a horrific. My husband's great-uncle, despite (because of?) being an officer, suffered a breakdown after the battle of Fromelles at the scale of losses of "his boys".

    We learn so much more of the heartbreak and sacrifice by looking at the individuals rather than the "big picture" of numbers. I often wonder where the world would be now if all those men had survived.

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  19. Thank you, Nell, for referring me to your post on George Brandon. Few families could not have been affected by the impact of WW! and as you say there are a lot of similarities in our respective tales - not least their Christian name, age and circumstances of death. George must have looked very impressive in his Coldstream Guards uniform ( I live abut 20 miles form Coldstream where there is a museum to the regiment). The story about the photograph being in your grandmother's locket is so poignant. Much later I found out that my husband's great uncle Frederick Donaldson from the Durham Light Infantry was killed on the very same day - 18th September 1916 and is remembered on the Thiepval Momunent We must never forget them.

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