My great uncle Reginald was killed less than two months before the end of the first world war.
His father Frederick – my great-grandfather – was his mid seventies when my own father was born. Dad told me that he remembered Frederick sitting in his study turning over a piece of propeller, the only thing he had left of the young man who had died.
I could never quite work this out because I couldn’t imagine how he’d have any part of an aeroplane shot down in Flanders. I knew my father must have been quite small when he saw it and wondered if it had all become muddled.
And then when my daughter had some homework about the First World War, I started doing some digging.
I discovered that my great-uncle was not killed in Flanders. He was second lieutenant in No. 39 Squadron of the Royal Air Force defending London against zeppelins and day time bombing raids. He died in England when the plane in which he was navigator crashed on 25th September 1918. I don’t know yet what circumstances led to his death. He was just twenty-one, the second of four children. My grandmother was the youngest child. When he died, she would have been about nine or ten. The pilot of the plane was just nineteen.
A few years ago, I took the opportunity to go to the Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon and looked at the kind of plane he’d have been flying in, a Bristol F.2 fighter. The plane was fundamentally wooden and the crew sat in leather slings. I can’t imagine wanting to go for a leisurely drive in it, let alone fly and engage in battle, and that’s nowadays when aeroplanes are a normal part of everyday life and not brand new, terrifyingly implausible technology.
My great-grandfather would have been around fifty-one and my great-grandmother forty-two when they lost their eldest son, younger than I am now. I can’t imagine the struggle they and their eldest daughter must have borne keeping a brave face for the youngest children. They were patriotic people, themselves born when the British Empire was at its height. They were sustained by their faiths. But they probably could not conceive in 1914 what the realities of that terrible war would be or what might happen and by 1918, must have been horrified. I’m sure they were proud of Reginald but I know that this was a loving family and any pride they must have forever jarred with grief and pain.
A hundred years ago today, the armistice came. How hard it must have been for that family, as for so many others, not to think that if it had only come six weeks, six months, four years earlier, they would not have an empty place at the table.
My parents’ families were more fortunate than many. My great-uncle was the only close relation who did not survive the two world wars.
But another thought struck me today. I don’t know why, because it’s not based on much, but I have always imagined my father as a five year old boy, peeking round the door of my great-grandfather’s study, watching the old man fiddling with a piece of wood in a shaft of sunlight. I imagine Frederick’s kindly face sad with memories. I imagine that this man so full of stories and poetry, wordless in his grief. And then it occurred to me. When my father was five, it was 1943. What must Frederick have thought?
There he was, turning over a piece of propeller from the ‘War to end all Wars’.
But all around, the Second World War raged and the London he knew and loved was devastated.
How much he must have hoped that this time, people would learn their lesson; that the futility of war would not be repeated and that his descendants would live in peace.
Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.