Remembrance Day 2020: making some very local connections

Soldiers of the King’s Royal Rifles*

The First World War was ended (on the Western Front at least) by the armistice that came into effect at 11 o’clock on the 11thNovember 1918. This is why we hold the service of remembrance at 11am on the closest Sunday to the 11 November. Of course today we remember all of those who gave their lives in war, from 1914 to the present, and we buy and wear poppies to support the fallen, survivors, and their families.   

As a historian my periods of historical interest – the ‘long’ eighteenth century and the Victorian era –  come to an end with the outbreak of war in August 1914. The so-called ‘Great War’ in many ways signifies the end of an old world and the ushering in of a new brash and mechanized ‘modern’ one. Of course that is far too simplistic; there was much that was ‘modern’ in late Victorian Britain and plenty of carryover into the Edwardian period. 

But the nature of historical specialism means that while I have always been fascinated by the First World War, I have never made it a subject of research. I tend to bookend my research with the hanging of ‘Dr’ Crippen in November 1910 for the murder of his wife Cora. Of course many of the people I study – the men and women who found themselves up before a magistrate or judge in the late 1800s – would have lived (as my paternal grandparents did) through the traumas of the First World War. 

This weekend the woman who keeps the flame of community burning in my London street circulated some documents she had copied from the local history society to which she belongs. Mostly these were notes from the local press during the war or citations from war memorials afterwards.

One entry in particular caught my attention. 

On 26 May 1917 Rifleman Harold Frank Turner of the 20th Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, died of his wounds at Pas de Calais, where he’d been taken for treatment. He was buried in Etaples Military cemetery. Harold was 23 years of age and was the fifth of six children born to William and Florence Turner. Harold Turner (a clerk by trade) had been serving on the Western Front since 18 May 1915.

His elder brother Sidney Ronald Turner had also joined the patriotic fight against the Kaiser’s Germany. At the time that Harold died Sidney was missing in action, presumed dead, something the local parish magazine mentioned when expressing its ‘deepest sympathy for Mrs Turner at the loss her son’.

Sidney (also a clerk, for the railways) had joined the 11 battalion of the Essex Regiment and had been lost in action on 22 April 1917. He had last been reported advancing towards ‘some wire entanglements’. He was never found and his death is recorded on the Loos Memorial at Calais. 

Florence Turner was used to loss (if you can ever get used to it that is). Her husband had died in 1903 at the age of 51 and her eldest son had died in 1910, aged just 25. Her youngest son – Frank – was also in uniform and was also a casualty of the conflict. Fortunately for him (and his mother and sister) in 1917 he was back in England, recovering from his wounds in hospital. 

The reason the story of the Turners touched me was that just before the war broke out Florence and her three surviving sons and daughter, were living in Friern Barnet, where I live today. Moreover they were living in my street, at my current address. By the time the boys signed up Florence had moved – not far, just around the corner – but for me this is a very personal link to the tragedy of that time. Three young men from one family, carrying all the hopes and dreams of Florence Turner, a widow who had already buried her eldest child, went off to war and only one of them came home, and he came home on a stretcher.  

It is a very sad, but probably a very familiar, story up and the country and across Europe and the world. 

‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’, but at what cost to so many families?

Dr Drew Gray is the head of Humanities at the University of Northampton  

*[picture from http://www.ww1photos.com/KRRC.html%5D

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