Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Remembering one man's death from the Great War

The War Marker, 1916
I am looking at an iron grave marker.

It is just over 25 cm long and 14 cm wide and has worn well considering it is almost a century old and for a while at least stood on a battlefield on the Western Front.

Of all the objects from the Great War that have come my way this stands out as one of the most poignant.

It will have been placed over the grave of a soldier to mark where he was buried until a more permanent memorial could be erected.

And as you would expect it comes with a history.

We know that it dates from 1916 and that it was used during the Battle of the Somme and in time if we can identify the exact location it was placed in the ground then the plot number of 907 might be able to lead us to the identity of the dead soldier.

According to the provenance that came with its sale it was bought by a French farmer as scrap and may well have been destined for use on the farm or melted down.

Montague Hal 1867-1916
Now for whatever reason he did not melt it down nor was it left to rust in a field and eventually was sold on to a British dealer who in turn sold it to my friend David Harrop.

David has a unique collection of memorabilia from both world wars which focus on the everyday objects which were the backdrop to how people experienced those conflicts including medals, letters and photographs as well as souvenirs and official war time literature.

But the marker is a bit different, partly because of its direct link to the Battle of the Somme and the death of a serviceman but also because it may be German.

One source has suggested that British war markers were made of wood and those used by the German army were made of metal.

And that makes a little bit personal because my maternal grandmother was German and some of her family served in the armed forces of Imperial Germany while six of my immediate family were in the British army making that war and the subsequent world war a real family affair.

From the German side all we have is a metal note case with an embossed military cross on the front and a name on the back.

Commonwealth war grave, Montague Hall, 1916
So holding the marker in a very odd sort of way brings me a bit closer to that side of my family.
It may sound a tad sentimental but it works and will have worked for all those who after the conflict could go and stand beside the gravestones of a loved one.

That in part was due to Sir Fabian Arthur Goulstone Ware who was the founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission which is now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

In the absence of an official system to mark or record the graves of those killed in action he set up a Red Cross unit which aimed to register all those who died.

In 1915 it was transferred from the Red Cross to the Army and two years later became the Imperial War Graves Commission charged with recording and maintaining the graves and the places of commemoration of all those who died.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
And today although the name has changed the organisation continues the work, overseeing the maintenance of Commonwealth war graves across the world and offering a free online service for those wanting to search for family members.

Amongst those 1,700,000 graves is that of my uncle who died in a Japanese POW camp in 1943 and who rests in the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in Thailand Thailand.

Nana saved all of his letters and the official correspondence and now with the online service I can view his headstone which brings me back to that iron marker and the as yet unanswered question of who nu 907 registered.

And the marker can be seen at a special presentation event by David Harrop at St John's Parish Church in Heaton Mersey at 2.00 pm today.

Pictures; iron war marker 1916, Montague Hall, Commonwealth war grave, and the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, Thailand, from the collection of Andrew Simpson

No comments:

Post a Comment