29 May 2020
A family story from the First World War
This week I thought I would share a little about my father’s family with you. My father Robert was the last born (1902) of four brothers and three sisters, to a country family Frank and May (Mary) Randall living in the tiny village of Chilmark, buried deep in the heart of the Salisbury Plain, in the county of Wiltshire. At the turn of the 19th Century life for rural families was hard and work beyond the family’s traditional occupation of shepherding and farming, scarce. So early in the 20th Century, with hopes of finding a better and more prosperous life the young family made the long journey to Alton, Hampshire, a distance of around 60 miles, and there they settled.
The first brother to be lost was the eldest son Frederick, in a tragic accident in young adulthood, leaving Robert and his two older brothers Philip and Douglas. As the older pair came of age Philip decided to emigrate to Canada c1908, to be followed by Douglas. Passports had not been decreed by then, so to do so simply involved travel from Alton to Southampton and boarding a ship. It is unlikely they paid for their passages, more likely each of them worked their passage and both of them ended up in Saskatchawen. As war with Germany loomed Philip left Canada and went to Western Australia.
In 1914 Britain went to war with Germany, and soon the commonwealth countries rallied to her aid, as Canada, Australia and New Zealand all raised expeditionary forces. Canada itself raised an expeditionary force numbering 650,000 Men, an extraordinary number. It has been said many of them were British migrants and it is thought they saw it as an opportunity to visit their homeland. Popular opinion expected a swift end to the war with a glorious outcome for Britain and her allies. Many of the new recruits believed they would be home by Christmas.
At the outbreak of war with Germany both Philip and Douglas enlisted with their respective armies in Australia and Canada, the latter being assigned to a regiment known as the 95th Saskatchewan Rifles. Eventually, to arrive in France and join the allied forces arraigned against Germany.
Between July and November 1917 both brothers were engaged in the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele. With the Anzacs holding Messin Ridge exhausted, they were in October 1917 to be relieved by refreshed Canadian infantry of the 95th Saskatchewan Rifles, and so the two brothers found themselves in proximity to each other, and knew it.
Incredibly, they were able to meet up and share a drink in the nearby town of Ypres, and it is fascinating to imagine what they might have shared and said to one another for that brief last meeting. It is said that through the valiant contribution of the soldiers of the Canadian expeditionary force in defeating Germany and its allies Canada became a Nation.
Douglas died in action shortly after that meeting, but he was not interred in a national war grave, instead he was buried in the town cemetery at Wimeroux near Boulogne, not far from where he died. All that I have to remember of Douglas is a sterling silver medal, which is a beautiful cross with Maple leaves (see photo), it has his name and service number engraved on the reverse.
In 1971 my husband David and I decided to find and visit his grave and having located the cemetery we searched for the military section. Remarkably soldiers from both sides of the conflict had been buried there in the same ground. I like to think that opponents in life were reconciled in death and so are laid together side by side.
We have been to Wimeroux twice since then and left a flowering plant on Douglas’ grave on both occasions, and hope to go again soon.
I hope you have enjoyed this long past, if rather sad glimpse of my family history. Keep safe and my best wishes to all.