It was the 100th anniversary of Britain’s entry into the First World War on Monday of this week, August 4th. I’ve been doing some research about my own ancestors who were caught up in that conflict, for a trip to northern France in November.
Two of my maternal great-great-uncles were killed in 1916. One was killed aged 37 years, in July of that year, and is buried in a military cemetery at Bouzincourt, near Arras. He was a volunteer, rather than a conscript, despite his age. The other died in August of 1916, at the age of just 16 years. The family story is that he ran away from a father and stepmother who treated the children of my great-great-grandfather’s first wife neglectfully after her death. For that reason his brother is recorded as his next of kin. Heartbreakingly, his body was never identified and so he has no known grave, he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, again in the Arras area.
It’s quite easy to hearken back to the “good old days”, the days when summers were long, everyone behaved respectfully, family breakdown was unknown and there was no crime. Unfortunately that’s also a fairy story. I’ve been reading Selina Todd’s “The People”, a history of the working class in Britain over the past 100 years or so. Poverty, lack of power and personal autonomy, very poor living conditions and even poorer life chances were the lot of the vast majority of the British population from the First World War until after the Second World War. My great-great-uncle Joseph was killed as a child, far from his home, probably in painful and terrifying circumstances and leaving no identifiable remains. There were many more like him between 1914 and 1916, from many nations.
One young man brings home both the enormity of the event and perspective on the society in which I am fortunate to live today.