“A journey of discovery” – our moving and memorable visit to the Étaples Military Cemetery

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:

19 thoughts on ““A journey of discovery” – our moving and memorable visit to the Étaples Military Cemetery

  1. Clare Pooley says:

    Thank-you very much for this thoughtful and moving post. I think after all these years there ought to be someone to remember your great-grandfather and to honour him for fighting for his country. He could have regretted what he had done and may in time, if he had lived, been able to get his family to forgive him. He could have been an unhappy and frustrated young man who needed and appreciated the discipline and excitement of military life. We all of us make mistakes, especially when we are young. His lack of self-control did not end well; his family were never able to forgive him, it seems. Perhaps now, after one hundred years you can help to bring a little peace and understanding.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hub says:

      Thank you Claire. I think you are right about life in the Forces being the making of him. His character is described as very good, and conduct very good when he transferred from the Royal Marines to the Royal Engineers. From what I have learned of his early life he had a very tough start.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. KerryCan says:

    This is such a moving post–this business of reaching back over the years to connect with a man you never knew, who was difficult to know. I like Clare’s thoughts about the man Albert may have been becoming among his band of brothers. Your photos are amazing–and a little overwhelming, as I guess they must be.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hub says:

      Thank you Kerry. It is surprising how attached you get to your ancestors as you start discovering parts of their life story. I always thought the reactions on Who Do You Think You Are? on TV were a bit fake. I know now that they are not. It is a fascinating journey.

      Like

  3. Lucy says:

    Great post, and lovely pictures. 🙂 I found a similar experience and further family research to also bring about a strong feeling of a familial bond, and I hadn’t expected it. Next time I’ll know to take tissues!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hub says:

      Thank you Lucy. It can be quite emotional as you look back through records, and standing at the grave made everything new very real. However the whole journey of discovery is, as you will know very compelling.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. utesmile says:

    An amazing journey and I can understand that you wanted to do it. I have visited Verdun and another War cemetery in France while driving through and even though I didn’t know anyone you walk around in awe. I am writing and translating my granddads diary form this war. He lost his leg on his 21st birthday and it is fascinating to read his short journey. As a child I used to sit on his wooden leg and he played with me never knowing how he must have felt….

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hub says:

      Thank you Ute. It is a humbling experience to walk around. Your work on your Grandads diary sounds fascinating. Reading the War Diary of the Corps has given and insight for me to the day to day mundane activity, to suddenly being in action with men being killed and wounded. Extraordinary men and women all of them.

      Liked by 2 people

      • utesmile says:

        I agree, reading the diary gives me so much more insight and it is fascinating. I have the highest admiration for all of them, also my parents who went through a war.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Ste J says:

    Great post, the accompanying photos are a great compliment. Your Grandfather survived so much, it must have been horrifying to be in so many terrible battles but you are right, there is redemption in that for any past decisions taken. This is a wonderful tribute to him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hub says:

      Thank you Ste J and sorry to be slow replying. I think he did redeem himself in war and his corps seem to have been in the thick of it throughout. the war.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Gallivanta says:

    Very moving post, and it is wonderful that you visited your great grandfather’s grave. The men who went to war were representative of all walks of society. but war (not just death) , as you see in the cemeteries, is a great leveler. I have visited the German, Italian, and Commonwealth War graves at El Alamein; those places are haunting and awesome. My brother has visited our great uncle’s memorial at Gallipoli, another ‘awesome’ place. We didn’t know my great uncle, neither did my father know his uncle; we don’t really know what he was like but as family we are inextricably linked to him and we feel it deeply that he, Teddy, is so far from us. I hope you will visit your great grandfather again.

    Like

    • Hub says:

      Thank you Mandy and I’m sorry I have taken so long to respond. Since writing this blog one of my uncles shared this with two of his cousins of whom I had only a distant memory. I am now in contact with them and they both had always wanted to visit this grave, which they knew about. It is strange the pull of family even to a family member, who I have now had confirmed, was not much mourned by his immediate family. I am sure I shall visit the grave again.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. valeriedavies says:

    What a moving and fascinating story. Every male member of my family fought in both wars, and I never fail to feel deeply about stories such as you tell… Most stories about these wars tend to be about the soldiers, but my only great uncle was a sailor who ‘went down’ -as my grandmother used to say – with his ship the HMS Vanguard… their only memorial as far as I know, is one on Plymouth Hoe which I have stood before…Thank you for your wonderful story and pictures…

    Like

    • Hub says:

      Thank you Valerie. I have found the experience quite profound and it has made very real things I thought I knew about the First War, but I now realise I didn’t fully understand. I am so fortunate that during my life time I have not had to think about going to fight.

      Like

  8. Cynthia Reyes says:

    You told the story well and you honour your family and ancestors in the telling of it. Thank you for trusting us with it. How important that you were able to learn more about your great-grandfather and find his grave.
    No human being I know has been an angel all their lives. We screw up, get overheated by anger, and make big mistakes sometimes. Whatever your ancestor did, we also know that he made a great sacrifice for his country. No human being can be defined by a single deed, though our popular storytelling often values that approach. We are all part hero and part screw-up. I believe in complexity and I believe in redemption.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hub says:

      Thank you Cynthia. I do agree that we are all a mix of good and bad. I am sure the discipline of the forces was the first disciplined environment which he had encountered and it gave him a chance to show what he was capable of doing. The telling part for me in the records is that his character and conduct are both described as very good when he transferred from the Royal Navel Division to the Royal Engineers.

      Liked by 1 person

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