Who were the men and women whose names are commemorated on war memorials around the country? Where did they live – and how and why did they die? In his book, War Memorial, Clive Aslet tells the story of one village’s sacrifice, from 1914 to 2003.
August 3 1914 was Bank Holiday Monday. At Lydford, a village like any other in the West Country, it was the day of the Pony Show. That was quite an event – people came from all over Devon to visit it. Special trains were laid on. But this year, anxiety overlay it. Britain was mobilising; the soldiers who had hoped to be there re-joined their regiments. Within 24 hours Britain was at war.
The Pony Show was a symbol of the unchanging round of country life. But many of the people attend it that year were to find their lives radically altered by the next four years. Their number included Archie Huggins, a stone mason and Hussar, a dashing right back for the Tavistock Football club and members of an equestrian tug of war team who rode bare-back. And Wilfie Fry, only 14 years old then, but old enough to be called up by the end of the First World War. Both are among the names remembered on the granite cross on which my book War Memorial is based.
I chose the war memorial at Lydford more or less at random; I knew nothing about the men and one woman named on it, before I began my research. My idea was that this war memorial would stand as a representative of all the 100,000 war memorials in this country. The stories that I uncovered were unexpected. The British countryside was so poor before 1914 – there had been an agricultural slump since the 1870s and the Devon mineral mines had closed – that anyone with gumption left. Two of the 13 First World War names had already emigrated to Canada before the conflict broke out and made new lives; they joined Canadian regiments.
Altogether, five men died on or around the Somme. They include Charlie Berry, a professional soldier, who had been one of the Old Contemptibles: members of what Kaiser Wilhelm II had called the ‘contemptible little army,’ which constituted the tiny British Expeditionary Force in 1914. Wounded at Gallipoli, he was nursed in London by Polly Hammett, daughter of the signalman of one of Lydford’s two railway stations. They married in July 1916. Less than a fortnight later, he left for the Front and never returned.
Harry Lake died crossing the River Piave, north of Venice. Jim Stevens survived until 1925, but had caught a disease from (according to his medical notes) eating an infected camel’s liver. It affected his skin, which dropped off, to the bafflement of the medical specialists in London’s teaching hospitals – and he died in Exeter Lunatic Asylum. Jim’s war had taken him to Salonika; I became so captivated by the letters, diaries and memoirs that I read of this campaign that I went on to write a novel, The Birdcage, which has just been released.
War memorials, like the one at Lydford, were erected as the result of a spontaneous desire to remember the sacrifice of a generation. There was no government policy to encourage. Instead, they were the equivalent of folk art: each one different, yet all expressing similar pain. Everyone wanted the loss that they had suffered to be remembered, so that the suffering that they had endured would not be relived. Alas, the Great War was not the war to end wars: there have been many wars since. But it is right that we remember and reflect. One consequence of the book has been that, on publication, I was contacted by the former army officer John O’Brien. Together we have founded a campaign, RememberWW1, to encourage the emotion generated by this moment to be channelled into voluntary service. Our forefathers hoped, vainly, that their sacrifice would create a better world. Couldn’t we try, however small a way, to bring that about?
Remember WW1 is a not-for-profit campaign with the aim of mobilising volunteer activity around the commemoration of World War 1. Find out more here.