I will be uploading this blog post on 5th October at 11:00am. It marks 100 years to the day, that a man fell during the battle of The Somme. 11:00am because we don’t know what time exactly his engagement happened. I do have a rough idea where it happened, and what the objective was. And we know his name; his name was Joseph.
Joseph was a Lance Corporal in the 8th Battalion of The Yorkshire Regiment, The Green Howards. He was a coal miner from Usworth Colliery, County Durham. He had volunteered for the Army in 1915. He chose to go to war; even though when conscription was introduced in 1916, as a coal miner, he would have been exempt.
He chose to go to war.
A photo of him in The Illustrated Chronicle in 1915 records him as Private in the 7th Yorkshire. (Wounded)
In October 1916 he was recovered and back on the front, now a Lance Corporal, in the 8th Battalion of the Green Howards, part of 69th Brigade, 23rd Division.
On this day, in 1916. Joseph died.
From what research I have done I know that the 23rd Div. made several attempts over the 4th, 5th and 6th of October to take a German support trench at Flers, near Le Sars. The attempts were unsuccessful. At this point I can only assume Joseph was killed out in No Mans Land on one of those raids. His body was never recovered and identified, he has no grave, his name is high on a wall at the Thiepval Memorial, along with thousands of his brothers in arms, that also fell, with no resting place, during that hideous battle.
He was one man, unmarried, with no children, falling amongst so many others on the hellish front, in that hellish war.
You’ll have already guessed why this one man is special though, to me at least. He was my great, great uncle. My grandfather was born in 1913 (alarmingly quickly after his parents married but that’s a story for another day.) Joseph may have bounced him on his knee when he was home on leave. I doubt there is anyone alive now who met Joseph, let alone remembered him. Apart from a name on a few war memorials he is gone from history.
It had been our hope to visit Thiepval for this anniversary, in the symbolic gesture that after a century there are still those who remember his sacrifice and bravery, the bravery of all his comrades who fought like lions, not for their countries perhaps, but for their mates along side them. Sadly, that visit was not to be, so this little piece will have to act as a new memorial, a new remembrance of a humble man, from a little mining community who stepped out into the world to do his duty and fell, as so many others.
Each year I buy a poppy, from the Royal British Legion. I buy a poppy to honour those who died, in the mud of the Great War, on the beaches of Dunkirk or Normandy, in the myriad of terrible, smaller wars since. I do it to honour those service personal injured in their service, both physically and emotionally. Many of my family have served their country in the military, including my wife. And whilst I may not always admire the motives of the governments sending our troops out to fight, I will always support the troops themselves.
In recent years though, that poppy, that symbol of simple remembrance, has started to become hijacked by political groups to become something else. There are sensationally overblown stories of radical groups burning poppies. I say that’s fine. They are free to do that in this country, however repugnant it may seem. My uncle and all those others died to maintain that freedom.
What disturbs me more is the far right using the poppy as a symbol of nationalist solidarity. For the first time last year I actually thought twice about wearing it lest people thought I was some kind of nationalist. There has been public shaming and trolling of people not wishing to wear poppies when appearing on television. Again, it is freedom. It is their wish to wear it or not, and not ours to question.
I remember the loathsome Britain First trumping up a story of them ‘guarding’ poppy sellers from abuse, which the sea cadets they ‘guarded’ were quick to deny, saying they were approached for a photo with them and that was all.
Buying a poppy does not make me a warmonger, or glorifying the deaths of innocent civilians in war. Neither does it make me a patriot or a ‘true Englishman’.
Buying a poppy helps raise funds for veterans alive today, providing support to those challenged so many different ways. It is not political; it is human and it is honourable.
The loss of life was so enormous in the First World War, that is is difficult to put a human face to all those names streaming down the walls at Thiepval. So today, look back up at that photo, and just think of one man, a 27 year old man, who worked down a pit, then picked up a rifle and went to France to die.
He was one man among many; to remember one, is to remember them all.
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