Regular readers of this blog will know that I have recently been sharing accounts of my and Hub’s trip to Paris a few weeks ago. In the first of this series, I mentioned our visit to the Military War Cemetery in Étaples, promising a further post by Hub himself…
I have had to give careful thought as to how I would write this guest blog. It is essentially about a journey of discovery through wanting to know more about who my ancestors are, and, to the extent that this is now possible, what some of their life stories may be. It documents our trip to the Military Cemetery in Étaples in France, which is not a particularly cheery subject and I didn’t want this to be depressing. I hope I have judged it right in the telling.
It was a little over eighteen months ago that I began to research my family history in earnest. It has been a fascinating journey, which has ranged over much of England and back through the centuries. My earliest forebear so far discovered is my 11th Great Grandfather, John Deane, born around 1565 in Paignton in Devon. I have traced Liz’s family back to Cornwall in the 1690’s. So we both have west country roots. The journey has also uncovered parts of moderately recent family history, in particular about my maternal Grandfather’s father.
I only once asked my Grandfather about his father. I knew then that he had died long before I was born. My Grandfather, whom I admired greatly, was a taciturn man. All he would say is “He died in the War”. Interesting that to my Grandfather, who lived through both World Wars, ‘The War’, meant the Great War fought in Europe between 1914 and 1918. It was clear to me then that this was a subject on which further questions would not be welcome. I don’t know how but I had always had a sense that my great Grandfather had not been kind, and indeed possibly violent, towards his wife and children.
I am not going to recite the whole journey and all the family history that I have discovered about my Great Grandfather, Albert Richmond. Suffice to say that one evening, as I doggedly followed a line of research showing him enlisting in October 1914, joining the Royal Naval Division of the Royal Marines in January 1915, transferring with the whole of his unit to the Royal Engineers in early 1917, I was brought up short to see his name appear among the war dead. He died on 17th November 1917 having been wounded on 12 November 1917. His injury was recorded in the War Diary, required to be kept by every corps, of the 249th Field Company Royal Engineers. I have since been able to secure a copy of the Diary from the National Archive and I reproduce the relevant extract below:
I learned from my research that he had been sent with the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force in April 1915. The MEF took part in the second landing at Gallipoli. Having survived that, and been evacuated, his unit was sent to France. It saw action along the Western Front including the Somme in 1916, which he survived and in the Second Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 where he was killed. He joined as a sapper, and he gained three NCO promotions to Corporal of Horse (the Engineers having an additional rank of second corporal). He appears to have acquitted himself well in war. I have since discovered that his early enlistment was to avoid a serious criminal charge following a fight in which another man was seriously injured or possibly killed. It seems with the exigencies of war, sending a man to fight was preferable to incarcerating him.
Knowing his regiment and service number allowed me to discover where he was buried, through the Commonwealth War Graves website, together with the location of the exact plot where he lies. I knew that no one would have visited his grave. His death in war was seen as rough justice for his life before the war. And yet I just knew that I had to go and stand at his grave on the centenary anniversary of his death. I still cannot explain the bond of kinship that told me it had to be done.
So it was that two bleary eyed people joined the throng at Gare Du Nord station to catch the 07:30 train to Etaples – Le Touquet. It is a two-and-a-half-hour journey from Paris almost to the coast just short of Boulogne. By the time we arrived it was a beautiful late autumn day. We knew the Military Cemetery, the largest in France, lay to the north of the town, about a thirty-minute walk. We set off with, I must admit on my part, some apprehension. I wasn’t sure either how I felt or would feel. I had never visited a Military Cemetery before.
The video below was taken by me just after we arrived. It shows the full extent of the cemetery which contains 10, 800 soldiers of the Great War. It is awesome, in the true meaning of the word.
I knew the plot and row number within the plot: Plot 30 row L. As I advanced along the line of gravestones I realised that the dates on them were sequential. It makes sense of course now, but as you look at the expanse of the graves it impressed on me, for the first time, the scale and relentless toll of death as the war progressed. Suddenly I was stood before the headstone you see in the image below.
It was bathed in sunshine from a sun that in November was low in the sky, and which would, in a short time, move so as to cast it into shadow. We took some time to sit near the gravestone on a bench to take in the surroundings. The cemetery is beautifully kept and it has a grandeur and a dignity wholly in keeping with the sacrifice it commemorates.
I know that I shall have to return from time to time. As we left I felt as if it were wrong to leave my Great Grandfather behind. What it is within me that feels the familial pull to a man who was not much missed by his immediate family I don’t know. Maybe it is duty, borne of a better understanding of the sacrifice of those who fought to maintain freedom. Maybe over the passage of the years, and what I have learned of his military service, I see his redemption. He was a good soldier and saw service in many of the worst theatres of the War. Whatever it is I salute him, and thank him humbly for his sacrifice.
The entrance to the Military War Cemetery:
The graves of Corporal Richmond and many, many others:
Looking back up to the cemetery’s entrance:
The history of the cemetery: