Posted by: mcfinder | August 21, 2011

The Battle of Mons

Just a matter of weeks after declaring war on Germany, 80,000 members of the BEF, along with 30,000 horses and 315 guns of assorted size were in France and unwittingly marching straight towards an enemy who had already passed through Luxembourg and was now putting Belgium to the sword. The Schlieffen plan was working beautifully.

On the 22nd August, a forward patrol of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards encountered the Germans for the first time. While conducting a reconnaissance along the road heading out from Maisières, four enemy cavalrymen of the 2nd Kuirassiers emerged from the direction of Casteau. They were spotted by the British and turned around, whereupon they were pursued by the 1st Troop under Captain Hornby and the 4th Troop. Corporal E. Thomas of the 4th opened fire near the chateau of Ghislain, the first British soldier to do so in the Great War. He was uncertain whether he killed or wounded the German soldier that he hit. Meanwhile, Hornby led his men in hot pursuit and charged the Germans, killing several. He returned with his sword presented, revealing German blood.

Meanwhile, to the rear, having got an inkling that things were about to get a bit heavy, the BEF decided to dig in a loose line along the Mons-Conde canal. They didn’t really know how many Germans were on the other side of the canal, but they would find out soon enough. Suffice to say, it would not be a fair fight; less than 80,000 British troops with 300 odd guns, against around 160,000 German soldiers and 600 guns. Ouch.

Although they were facing huge numbers of men and guns on the other side of the canal, the BEF did have two distinct advantages: Firstly, they were professional soldiers, highly skilled and probably the best exponents of the noble art of rifle fire on the planet. Secondly, the German 1st Army, whom they were facing, were under strict orders not to risk outflanking the British, thus potentially losing touch with the German 2nd Army, so they had to launch a more difficult frontal attack. Which they duly did at dawn on the 23rd August 1914. The war was most definitely on.

The artillery opened up at dawn and at 9am the first waves of German infantry attacked, their objectives were the bridges that crossed the canal leading them to the British lines. They advanced across open country in close formation and made a perfect target for the trained British riflemen. It was carnage. The Germans suffered terribly, and by noon had made next to no progress at all.

The BEF held on for 6 hours before the sheer numbers of the enemy meant they had no choice but to blow the bridges over the canal and retreat to a pre-established second line position a few miles away. The Germans were tired and disorganised and failed to press home any advantage despite their huge numerical advantage. German reserves were called up and massed for a new attack in the evening, It was here that the British commanders finally realised the size of the enemy, and they promptly ordered the retreat. They had already lost 1,600 men and didn’t fancy losing too many more, so the men were organised, rounded up and the order was given: a fighting retreat towards Maubeuge and then down the road from Bavai to Le Cateau almost 20miles away.


At 19:00 CET today, a ceremony will be held at the Commission’s newest cemetery at Fromelles in northern France, to dedicate the newly erected headstones of 14 Australian soldiers who died 95 years ago, during the Battle of Fromelles.

This public event forms the latest chapter in the Fromelles story, which has seen the discovery of 250 Australian and British soldiers, who were killed on 19 July 1916.

arial view of Fromelles cemetery

arial view of Fromelles cemetery

Exactly one year ago, the last of those 250 soldiers was buried in a ceremony to dedicate Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery. Over the past 12 months, evidence to help identify more of those buried at Fromelles has been successfully gathered, enabling the Australian and British governments to name 14 more Australian soldiers in April 2011, adding to those 96 Australian soldiers already identified by name.  This painstaking work has been possible by using a combination of DNA testing and the careful analysis of historical, archaeological and forensic information

Tonight’s ceremony will see family members of many of the 14 newly identified soldiers being given the chance to pay their respects to their loved ones.  Also in attendance will be various dignitaries and the people of Fromelles, who have shown tremendous support over the past few years, to enable the project to reach such a successful conclusion

However, this is not the end of the Fromelles story, as any new evidence pertaining to any of those soldiers not yet identified will be examined at a yearly Board of Identification, which will be held once every year until 2014.  More information can be found at  (This text was taken directly from CWGC).

Want to know a bit more about the Attack at Fromelles? Well, today is your lucky day..


Fromelles – The worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history

An attack in and around the villages of Fleurbaix and Fromelles was initially pencilled in as part of a widening of the Somme offensive. However, the successes on the Somme were not forthcoming and the relevance of an attack around Fromelles was dismissed by the Army’s High Command on July 16th. However, Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Haking (GOC XI Corps), the local commander of the area was still keen to press ahead with the operation, despite no clear objective or plan.

The rough idea, hastily modified from the original plan, was to stop the Germans moving troops from this sector, south to re-enforce the Somme area. This attack would also be the first to involve the Australians. Their 5th Division had landed in France just days before, and would be thrown in right at the deep end. Assisted by the British 61st Division.

The attack would centre around a salient – nick named ‘Sugar Loaf’ due to its size and shape. Sugar Loaf was relatively small but commanded all the high ground in the area and had unrestricted views on all sides. Sugar Loaf was held by the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division, and they had built a very solid and intricate defensive position. Taking the Loaf would not be easy, and would need some clever tactics, perhaps a surprise attack under darkness using a small number of elite troops.

After careful consideration, the clever chaps of the Army High Command decided that a huge artillery bombardment, followed by a full frontal mass infantry attack in broad daylight, would be the best way to go. The artillery bombardment would definitely smash the defenders to little pieces, and the infantry would be able to amble up the hill, cigars on the go, and take the positions.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately it seems that the lessons of July 1st were not fully heeded.

For seven odd hours before zero, the German lines were shelled to bits. The problem was, the maps that the British Officers had that showed the position of the German lines were out of date. The German had actually pulled back a few hundred yards to a new defensive line. Those shells, all 200,000 of them, fell on empty earth and reduced the landscape to a muddy bog, devoid of cover – which would prove disastrous.

Men of the 53rd Battalion, AIF waiting to 'go over the top' at Fromelles 19 July 1916 (Courtesy AWM).

Men of the 53rd Battalion, AIF waiting to 'go over the top' at Fromelles 19 July 1916 (Courtesy AWM).

After the bombardment the Australian and British troops advanced. Some elements of the Australian contingent actually made it to their first objective; however there were no Germans there, just mud and more mud. From their new positions the Germans made easy work of the attackers. With no cover, they didn’t stand a chance.

The British and Australian troops who advanced on the right flank of the attack didn’t even have the chance to reach their objective – they were literally cut to pieces by machine guns as they crossed No Man’s Land.

Later in the evening, the British asked the Australian 15th Brigade to join up with a renewed assault on the German lines at 9pm. However, this attack was cancelled, but someone forgot to tell the Australians, who advanced again, alone, and suffered terribly.

During a German counter attack the Australian forces were split into two, each side becoming increasingly isolated and vulnerable to complete encirclement. The order to retreat at daybreak was given, however by the time the retreat had begun; those Germans had set up even more machine gun posts and inflicted devastating casualties on the retreating Australian troops.

It was not a good introduction to battle for the Australians. After a little over 24 hours of fighting, they had suffered 5,533 casualties (killed, wounded or prisoners). The British had fared slightly better, but still, 1,547 casualties were not insignificant. Not one inch of ground had been one. It was a complete disaster.

The Australian War Memorial describes the battle as “the worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history.”


For more information, why not visit these dedicated websites on the Attack at  Fromelles.

Posted by: mcfinder | July 18, 2011

The Plugstreet Archaeological Project

Exploring, through forensic archaeology, the human story of the Battle of Messines

The Plugstreet Project is a non profit project lead by No Man’s Land Archaeology Group, a multinational team of volunteers specialising in the study of the First World War though archaeological excavations, historical research, map work and aerial photography. Working with academic departments, local and international partners, cutting edge techniques are being employed to gain a greater understanding of life in the trenches and the effect of the war on the local population.

The Great War of 1914-1918 took place barely a century ago, at the start of the Plugstreet Project, men who had taken part in these battles were still alive and the memories of numerous others live on in their letters, memoirs and in some cases oral history recordings. Across the world archives hold thousands upon thousands of documents, maps and photographs. What could we possibly learn from excavating the landscape upon which such well documented events took place? The Plugstreet Project is the first attempt in any period of archaeology to follow a military unit from formation through training, to a baptism of fire, in an attempt to establish whether their training had indeed been successful. In addition it aims to examine the ongoing effect of the conflict, over a lifetime ago, on the residents of the area and also the families of over half a million men who fought in these fields. By combining the findings on site with documentary evidence, academic and scientific investigation, the team set out to discover the story of the Battle of Messines, one of the least know but perhaps one of the most decisive battles of the Great War.

This website tells that story and provides an opportunity for the families of those who lived and died in these fields, to share their own little slice of history, so helping to build the true picture of this landscape and the lives it has touched.

Go and check out their website, buy their books and watch their videos!

After the Boer War, Richard Haldane, the War Minister, spearheaded a reform of the British Army. Hindered by a nation obsessed with its Navy, and a political system opposed to conscription, the opportunity to grow the army was limited, so instead Haldane concentrated on modernisation and training, with the aim of building an elite force of 6 infantry divisions and 1 cavalry division, all available for rapid mobilisation as a British Expedition Force (BEF) in mainland Europe. Backed, if needed, by a reserve of 14 Territorial divisions of volunteers.

The overseas portion of the British Army – specifically those armies in India, Egypt, South Africa and the Middle East lost out big time in this re-structure and overhaul. Despite the fact that over half of the total strength of the army was stationed overseas, these forces were often starved of men, equipment and resources in order to bolster the BEF.

At the outbreak of war in August 1914 the BEF was about 120,000 strong and ready to go. They had seen the European heavyweights poke each other in the eye and were ready to get stuck in. Unfortunately, whilst they were expertly trained – especially in the use of the rifle, in which they were probably the best in the world, they were trained for a mobile war, and did not have huge numbers of artillery, machine guns, mortars or grenades.

So, with big smiles and a sense of adventure, the BEF boarded trains and headed off to Belgium. The sentiment of the time was that it would ‘be all over by Christmas’ and it will all be a jolly good escapade. However they marched straight towards an enemy that had already forced the armies of Belgium and France to run and hide. Germany was hugely superior in numbers, had more artillery, more bombs, and more shells, she also knew how to ‘dig in’ and form strong defensive positions.

However despite the odds, the BEF put up a huge fight and frustrated the on rushing German army. This can be seen clearly in the famous “Order of the Day” given by the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, on the 19th August, 1914:-

“It is my Royal and Imperial Command that you concentrate your energies,
for the immediate present upon one single purpose,
and that is that you address all your skill and all the valour of my soldiers,
to exterminate first, the treacherous English,
walk over General French’s contemptible little Army.”

With typical British humour, the BEF gladly embraced being called contemptible, and from that day on they would be forever known as ‘The Old Contemptibles’.

The BEF fought heroically, In an after-action report, one Prussian officer estimated that the British had at least 28 machine guns per battalion. In reality, they had only TWO machine guns per battalion. All that firepower came from bolt-action rifles in the hands of men well-trained in their use.

Despite lacking men, guns and ammunition, the BEF  managed to halt the German Army and put a very large British spanner in the wheel that was the Schlieffen Plan. The German advance had been stopped. Paris had been saved. It came at a cost though. By the end of 1914, the original BEF had been practically wiped out.

The survivors of The Old Contemptibles were rightly proud of what they had achieved between August 5th and November 22nd 1914. In 1925, Captain John Patrick Danny, RFA, founded the Old Contemptibles Association for veterans of the BEF. At its height it had 178 UK branches and 14 overseas and produced its own magazine.

Posted by: mcfinder | June 30, 2011

The Battle of the Somme (1916) in 833 Words.

The Somme offensive was the main Allied attack along the Western Front in 1916. Launched on July 1st along a 19 mile front line north of the River Somme between Amiens and Péronne, it eventually ended on 18th November due to bad weather.

Originally intended to be an offensive dominated by French forces, with the British in support, it’s primary objective would be to smash the German army and deplete their manpower reserves. This was never going to be a nimble, clever campaign. Oh No. Just brute strength and attrition please waiter.

As it was their show, the decision to launch the offensive in the Somme region was down to the French high command, and it was down to the location of available manpower and resource rather than any grand strategy or plan. Haig preferred an attack in the north of Belgium to check the growing U-boat problem emanating from the Belgian ports but the politics of the situation forced him to comply. So everything was agreed. Hands were shook, backs were patted and cigars lit. The ‘big push’ was pencilled in for August 1916.

But, being the party poopers they are, the Germans messed up all the plans when they launched their own offensive at Verdun at the beginning of 1916. Suddenly France was the one being ‘bled white’ and within a few months it was clear that France would not be in any fit state to lead a major offensive. In fact it was touch and go as to whether they would survive as a fighting unit. They needed help from Britain to relieve the pressure at Verdun, and they needed it fast.

So, the date of the attack was brought forward to the beginning of July, and it was now a large scale British diversionary attack, with only minimal French support. Planning passed to Haig, and it was game on.

The plan was simple: Mass more guns than have ever been massed before to fire more shells than had ever been fired before, for longer than had ever been done before. This would completely smash the German defences, cut their wire to smithereens and shatter the resolve and morale of the enemy soldiers. Then, the infantry, some 750,000 men (of which a large portion were made up from Kitchener’s new Pals Battalions), would advance and consolidate the positions, with cavalry at the ready in order to attempt a complete breakthrough if the opportunity arose.

Despite a monster 8 day bombardment, a mixture of poor quality ammunition and world class underground German bunkers resulted in failure. Wire was not cut, morale had not been broken, defences were still intact and when the infantry attacked the German positions at 7.30am the German machine gunners and artillery were ready and waiting.

Soldiers waiting to go over the top - Somme 1916

Soldiers waiting to go over the top - Somme 1916

The result was carnage. The British Army suffered almost 58,000 casualties on this one day. A third of these were killed. To this day it stands out as the blackest moment in the Army’s illustrious history. Apart from the odd isolated success the large bulk of the British infantry were either cut down in No Man’s Land or forced back to their own lines. Ironically it was the French, that made the best progress towards the south of the front.

Despite everything, Haig persisted with the offensive in the following days.  Advances were made, but these were limited and often ultimately repulsed.  On the 11th July the first line of German trenches were secured.  On that day German troops were transferred from Verdun to contribute to the German defence, doubling the number of men available for the defence.

Like punch drunk boxers, both sides thought they were one decisive blow away from total victory, so they kept smashing each other in the face, time and again. There were minor successes such as the Australian capture of Poziers on July 23rd, but these were isolated victories and could not be capitalised upon.

On the 15th September, the British attacked again in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. It was here that the tank made its operational debut, and although it scared the hell out of the enemy, these early ‘land ships’ failed to make a great impact and the advance only gained a few kilometres.

The sparring carried on until the November snow forced the final suspension of operations. Allied forces had gained a slither of tortured landscape 12km across at the deepest point.

Over a million men became casualties during this bitter struggle, with Britain and her Empire suffering to the tune of 419,654 men, wounded and killed. However, the Germans suffered terribly too (around 500,000 casualties), and they were forced to stop attacking Verdun allowing the French army to dust itself down and regroup. So while the tactics of Haig remain controversial even to this day, the offensive achieved the desired effect: Relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun, and inflict huge casualties on the Germans. So from a purely military point of view, he could be excused for saying ‘job done’.

As I was taking part in the annual event that is clearing out my garage yesterday, I came across one box of my book  – For Conspicuous Gallantry…Winners of the Military Cross During The Great War (Volume 1: 2 Bars and 3 Bars). As well as possibly having the longest book title in the world, it consists of military biographies of all officers who won 2 or 3 Bars to the MC.

More than just a list of winners, this book looks in detail at the men behind the medals and provides a unique insight into the military careers of these gallant men, who up until now have been largely overlooked.

If you want to have a look at some content then you can see an example of Major H W F B Farrer MC and 2 Bars here

I had actually thought that all copies were sold, and I was surprised to see the little box of books stashed in the corner, buried beneath a heap of toys, tents and bikes…so the world has another opportunity to grab a distinctly average book, by an average chap, at a non-average price. Cover price for these beauties is £20, but for this last box (about 20 of them I think) the price will be £9.99 with free UK postage.

This book will not be re-printed, so this is it, the last opportunity to own a book that works wonderfully as a leveller for a table or chair with a wonky leg. Once they are gone….they are, er…gone.


So, if you want to take advantage of the £9.99 special offer then either email me at, or twit me @military_search and I will reserve you one.

Posted by: mcfinder | June 6, 2011

9 D-Day Facts

To celebrate and remember the Allied landings on the Normandy beaches, here are a few interesting facts about this most historic and heroic day.

  • The codename given by the Allies for the overall  invasion was ‘Operation Overlord’.
  • The invasion took place over 61miles of beaches. The beaches were split into 5 sectors and given the following code names: Omaha, Sword, Juno, Gold and Utah.
  • In total 156,115 Allied troops landed in Normandy (83,115 of these were British and Canadian troops)
  • Operation Neptune was the code name given to the channel crossing phase of the invasion.  Operation Neptune consisted of  6939 vessels and 195,700 personnel.
  • By the end of 11th June (D + 5), 326,547 troops, 54,186 vehicles and 104,428 tons of supplies had been landed on the beaches.
  • It is estimated that about 17 million maps supported the mission.
  • At 0537, a group of German E-boats made the only ‘Kriegsmarine’ attack on D-Day when they moved in as close to the allied convey as they dared and unleashed a volley of torpedoes. The only ship that was hit was a Norwegian Destroyer called Svenner, which sunk.
  • When the D-Day forces landed, Hitler was asleep. None of his generals dared order re-enforcements without his permission, and no-one dared wake him. Crucial hours were lost in the battle to hold on to Normandy.
  • Having been given his top-secret mission to attack the Merville battery on D-Day, Terence Otway had to be certain his men wouldn’t spill the beans ahead of 6 June 1944. He sent 30 of the prettiest members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, in civilian clothes, into village pubs near where his soldiers were training. They were asked to do all they could to discover the men’s mission. None of the men gave anything away.
  • One of the greatest feats of military engineering was Operation PLUTO (Pipeline Under The Ocean) which was an ambitious joint project between British scientists, oil companies and the armed forces to lay an undersea oil pipeline from England to France to enable the invasion force to be fueled. It fed the force with over a million gallons oil daily.


These are just a few snippets, but there are hundreds of facts and interesting stories about D-Day and the Normandy invasion, if you have a factoid or story, why not add it here?

Here is another ‘hero of the line’. This is a series of researched officers and men who were killed during the First World War and whose gravestone we photographed during our ‘cycling the line‘ trip in 2009.

Today’s hero is Lt. Col. Randle Barnett Barker, DSO & Bar. Royal Fusiliers.

Record of Service:

  • Born London, 19/6/1891
  • A career soldier, he gained his first commission to 2/Lt on 17/1/1891
  • Served in India from 11/11/1892 until 10/8/1895
  • Promoted to Lt on 22/7/1893
  • Returned to India on 2/12/1896 and stayed until 30/12/1896
  • Married Elinor Gertrude on 2/6/1897
  • Appointed Adjutant, 1st Royal Fusiliers on 1/10/1898
  • Promoted to Captain on 19/7/1899
  • After 15 years service, Barnett Barker retired from the Royal Welsh Fusiliers on 5/5/1906
  • Appointed Captain in the Reserve of Officers 21/8/1915
  • Embarked for the Western Front 11/12/1915

Barnett Barker was appointed as a Captain in the Reserve of Officers on 21/8/1915 and had a prodigious war, being Mentioned in Dispatches 5 times and being awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Bar. He gained the DSO during fighting at Delville Wood in late July/early August 1916, and the Bar to the DSO for leadership and bravery at Arras in 1917.

During the War, he was present during the following actions: Vimy Ridge (1916), Delville Wood (1916), Beaumont Hamel (1916), The Ancre advance and Miramont Battle (1917) and Arras (1917). As well as the second Battle of the Somme (1918).

  • Assumed command of 99th Infantry Brigade on 24/1/1918

Lt. Col. Barnett Barker fell in action at Guendecourt during the second Battle of the Somme on 24/3/1918, when he was commanding 99th Infantry Brigade. The Brigade HQ diary records the day as such:

Shells began to fall in and around Guendecourt at 5.45pm. Brigadier General R. Barnett Barker, DSO and Captain E. I. Bell, MC (staff Captain) were killed by a shell.

This shell fire was part of a German offensive that started on 21st March 1918. The diary summarises:

The German offensive began at 4.45am and the events of the following days are summarised in the Narrative of Operations (Appendix VI). Special record must however be made of the serious losses sustained by the Brigade during the fighting. Foremost amongst these were Brigadier General R. Barnett Barker. General Barker had served in the Brigade continuously since it came out to France, except for 3 months when he commanded the 3rd Infantry Brigade in Flanders. As Commanding Officer if the 22nd Royal Fusiliers he had won the respect and affection of everyone in the Brigade and when he succeeded Brigade General R .O Kellett in Command of the Brigade it was with the happiest auguries for the future. (WO95/1370).

He is buried in Albert Communal Cemetery Extension.

Gravestone of Lt Col R Barnett Barker DSO & Bar

WW1 Medal Entitlement:

  • Distinguish Service Order (LG: 20/10/1916)
  • Bar to the Distinguished Service Order (LG: 14/7/1917)
  • Mentioned in Dispatches: 22/5/1917, 4/1/1917, 15/5/1917, 11/12/1917, 20/5/1918.
  • 1915 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal


DSO Citation – 20th October 1916

Capt. (temp. Lt-Col.) Randle Barnett Barker, R. Fus.

For conspicuous gallantry during operations. He took over and organised the defences of a wood with great skill, after making a personal reconnaissance of the whole wood under shell and machine gun fire. He has done other fine work and has displayed great personal bravery.

During the fighting that raged in and around Delville Wood during 24th July and 6th August, 1916 Barnett Barker’s regiment (22nd Royal Fusiliers) suffered 267 casualties, killed and wounded.

Bar Citation – 24th July 1917

Capt. And Bt. Maj. (Temp. Lt. Col.) Randle Barnett Barker, DSO., R. Fus.

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During an assault his battalion was compelled to withdraw from its objective owing to heavy casualties and to its flank being unsupported. At this most critical moment he reorganised and rallied all the men of his brigade who were within reach, and by his promptitude and fine leadership won back most of the objective, and maintained it until relieved.

Posted by: mcfinder | May 11, 2011

More Little Known Facts on WW1.

The blog post I did a while back: 9 Little Known Facts of WW1 has been very popular, so I thought I would add a few more bite sized nuggets…so here we go:  Little Known WW1 facts, Chapter 2…

When the British mines laid under the Messines Ridge near Ypres were exploded on 7th June 1917, they not only changed the landscape, but could also be heard as far away as Dublin, Ireland. About 10,000 German soldiers died instantly in the blast.

Officers carried revolvers, not rifles, as a result they were easy for the enemy to spot and targetted specifically by the enemy.

From July to December 1917 (commonly referred to as the Battle of Passchendaele) 1 British officer was killed for every 19 men. In the German army during the same period, It was 1 German officer for every 38 men.

The first reported use of gas was by the Germans on the eastern front on 3rd Jan 1915. It was a tearing agent dispersed by artillery shell. The first use on the western front came several months later on 22nd Apr 1915 at the village of Langemarck near Ypres. At 1700 hours the Germans released a 5 mile wide cloud of chlorine gas from some 520 cylinders (168 tons of the chemical). The greenish-yellow cloud drifted over and into the French and Algerian trenches where it caused wide spread panic and death. The age of chemical warfare had begun.

One of the most famous big guns of the Great War is the infamous Paris Gun. Also known as Lange Max, or Big Bertha. In this case size was not everything, although the gun could fire a shell 70 miles in 170 seconds, it didnt have a great deal of explosives and accuracy was non existent.. it was used for propaganda rather than serving any real military tactical advantage.

The youngest casualty of WW1 was  6322 Pte John Condon of the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment who was just 14 when he was reported missing, presumed dead on 24th May 1915.

The first use of tanks (or land ships as they were originally known) on the battlefield was the use of 49 British MK I tanks during the Battle of the Somme on 15th September 1916

634 Victoria Crosses were issued during WW1.

Horses were the main means of transportation for all sides in the War. As such, almost 8 million horses were killed during the conflict with another 2.5 million wounded.

The first German air raid on London took place on 28th November 1916. The Germans hoped that by making raids on London and the South East, the British Air Force would be forced into protecting the home front rather than attacking the German air force.

Posted by: mcfinder | May 6, 2011

Don’t Let Veteran’s Stories Fade Away…

With the sad but inevitable news that Claude Choules, the last surviving veteran from WW1 passed away earlier this week, I guess the press will be full of articles about their lives, television programmes dedicated to their memory and a renewed interest, for a while, in the “Great War”.

That we remember those who fought and died, or who survived is of course only right and proper but as I read about Claude Choules passing I did start to wonder if we aren’t in danger of losing those from World War II before we know it.

If you think back over the last 5 or 6 years, the last dozen or so surviving Tommie’s from WW1 had almost reached celebrity status… Men such as Harry Patch and Henry Allingham were inundated with historians, television crews, radio pundits etc. all wanting to squeeze every last drop of memory out of them before it was too late. Numerous books and documentaries detailed their stories and revelled in the horrors that they had witnessed firsthand.

I wonder though, as we have read with awe, and listened intently to the stories of these undoubtedly brave and remarkable men, have we failed to notice that those soldiers who fought in WW2 are also leaving us. Another brave and heroic generation are slowly fading away right in front of us and it will not be long before we repeat the circus act that has surrounded the last WW1 soldiers in recent years.

I wonder how many veterans of Dunkirk are left? And what about El Alamain? River Plate?  Tobruk? How many people are left that can actually tell us firsthand what it was like at Monte Cassino, or trying to cross the Rhine in Operation Market Garden.
The simple fact is that World War II ended 66 years ago and so any survivor from that conflict must now be in their 80s. Of course, they could go on for another 20 even 30 years but sadly many of them won’t and as they do leave us so their story will fade too. That’s part of the cycle of life of course, their passing really is inevitable, but as they become fewer and fewer so I am struck again by the social responsibility we all have to ensure they memories, stories and experiences live on, because one day there just won’t be any one left—after that there really is no going back.

WW2 Veterans

WW2 Veterans

So, if you know someone in your family who fought in WW2, then see if you can talk to them about it, do some research on where they fought and what they experienced. It is likely they have artefacts such as letters or medals or uniform that will bring these stories to life. Very soon this will all we will have left of these heroes, so let us all ensure we do our bit to keep the memories and stories alive. We owe it to our kids and future generations.

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