Wednesday, November 09, 2011

A Time to Reflect

"Every man's life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another. ." - Ernest Hemingway

With just over a day before 11-11-2011 and the honour shown to the town of Margate by the visit of Her Majesty the Queen, my thoughts turn to two of my own relatives, each of whom played very different parts in the Great War of 1914 - 1918.

The first of these, Arthur Osburn an army doctor, wrote a book, 'Unwilling Passenger', which I recently shared with Ian Hislop and which I have blogged about before. He took part in the very first engagement, which happened to be a cavalry charge and most recently, Andy Robertshaw, who like Hislop, makes documentaries on the First World War, borrowed my copy for research into a unique eyewitness account of those first battles and the great retreat of the British Expeditionary Force from Mons.

He describes the first action of the Great War; the 23rd August 1914, a cavalry engagement at Soignies in Belgium, between the 4th Royal Dragoon Guards and German lancers. In a new chapter 'Mons the Overture', he describes the action in some depth as he was present.

The German cavalry he refers to as 'Bavarian ploughboys' who were routed by the professional British cavalry and adds: "Some of our men pursuing them had refrained at first from running them through because their backs were turned. This gallantry was not to last very long!"

He adds: "I asked one of the prisoners for a button, which he cut off, my first souvenir! Rather tearfully he insisted that his brother had been shot at Munich for refusing to join-up and that he himself was very pleased he had been taken prisoner and would not have to take any further part in the war."

My maternal great grand-father, Andrew, who lived both here in Westgate and in London, volunteered, much like the great  novellist Ernest Hemingway, to be an ambulance driver for the Belgian army at the very start of The Great War in 1914. From there, his life took an unusual turn and he became one of the first official war photographers, working for the Illustrated London News surviving the war unscathed and finally retiring back to a quiet life in Westgate on Sea at the Old Boat House. I recall seeing his Mons Medal as a boy.

I still have his issue Kodak camera, in excellent working condition, in its original leather case sitting on the shelf opposite, marked with the magazine's name on the inside and I may take it along with me to the ceremony on Friday as a mark of respect. By all means ask me if I have it if you wish to have a look at it. If you provide the film, it could still take photos, although what was seen through that small viewfinder, one can only guess.


Anonymous said...

anon again!
If you don't wear a Poppy for anyone, then wear one for all the Mother's who have lost their Son's to War.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Simon, and I find the historical family links to WWI fascinating. Of my two grandfathers, one was with the East Surrey Regiment fighting the Turks in Mesopotamia whilst the other worked at Woolwich Arsenal. My wife had one grand father with the South African Brigade at Dorville Wood during the Somme offensive and the other was a merchant service Captain plying the Atlantic.

Such a shame one did not talk to them more when young for they must have seen so much.

Anonymous said...

Yes indeed. I wish I had been able to hear more from my foster grandfather. I remember at his farmhouse he would point to a cupboard ans say that is where he had locked up his mischief monkey. I now think it was his way of coping with PTSD. He did once talk about it being an advantage to be small and that Suffolk Regiment big men were falling around him but the bullets were passing over his head. He was a short man who could run all day with coom sacks of wheat or of barley on his back. Immensely strong. He said "Come to it being small was good git round em like a wopsy roun a carsk". (Wasp round a jam jar). I worked out in later life he had been talking about the Battle of the Mametz Wood. He spoke of hearing the Welsh men choir singing on the even of battle. The Suffolks had to go in on the flank when the Prussian Guard broke a Highland Regiment which fled in disorder. So that is what he was talking about. "Come to it" (Hand to hand) the six footers of the Prussian Guard were no match for his speed, strength and agility. The Suffolks took the day. In the 20s Suffolk Farming was nigh broken by the "Tithe Wars" and his approach was for him and his brother (He was an upholsterer as a standby trade and his brother a gunsmith|) to diversify including taking in Barnardos children for the fostering fees. Hence my mother became a member of the Farmer's family. All the children of his foster children were remembered in his will. And they did not just foster for the money but took the Barnardos children as their own. WE won't see their like again Simon.