Monday, November 14, 2016

A letter to remind Sheila Claydon

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This weekend it has been time to remember the fallen, those soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought for a safe and peaceful future for the rest of us. For me, born and brought up in England, the union flag says it all. For my American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand friends and colleagues, and those from many other countries, it will be a different flag but the emotions will be the same.

So what does Remembrance Day mean to me? Well my family is a bit out of kilter when it comes to the two World Wars because the nineteen year age difference between my parents means that I had close relatives active in both conflicts. In WWI it was my father's family, in WW2 my mother's. 

One of my father's brothers died at the Battle of the Somme whilst another one never really recovered from months in the trenches up to his ankles in dirty water. It left him with fragile lungs, crippled feet and a permanent aura of sadness. He, like so many others, would never talk of what he'd seen and been through. Another paternal uncle returned unable to father children with all the heartache that entailed.

In WW2 my maternal grandfather, only 20 years older than my father, was torpedoed in the North Sea in the dead of winter. As his ship went down he managed to clamber aboard an open boat but his brother-in-law who was also his best friend, my Great Uncle William, wasn't so lucky. He drowned. Although my grandfather survived for 6 days until a rescue boat arrived, he never fully recovered from either the physical or mental ordeal.

My mother's older sister lost everything she owned when her house was bombed. She and her tiny daughter survived but my aunt's ears were so damaged by the blast that she remained deaf for the rest of her life.

Another aunt lost her young pilot husband shortly after their marriage and as a consequence suffered periods of mental instability for the rest of her life.

My parents were both in the Royal Air Force where my father was responsible for ensuring that bombs were safely loaded into Lancaster bombers while my mother, then only twenty years old, drove the aircrews to the airfields at night. There was only a pinpoint of light in each of the headlights of her truck and no signposts to follow in the pitch dark countryside. She once told me that frightening as it was, the far worst thing was driving to collect the crews when the planes returned always knowing that there would be some who hadn't made it safely back.

Having been lucky enough to grow up and then raise my own family in a time of peace,  I can hardly imagine what it must have been like to live in those uncertain days, waking up each morning unsure whether you and all your loved ones would make it to nightfall. I know I and millions of others owe a great debt to all the unsung soldiers, sailors and airmen of both wars as well as to the brave families they left behind, and this has been doubly brought home to me by a letter that has been long treasured in my father's family. It was written by my long lost Uncle and sent to my widowed paternal grandfather the night before the Battle of the Somme. It is faded and fragile but the words and the determination to be brave and do his duty are are clear. He was twenty years old.

France    June 30th 1916

Dear Dad
In case it is God's wish that I do not return, I am sending this purse and contents as a final gift. All my private things will be sent to you later. If I am killed I die like thousands of Britain's finest men. 

Give heaps of my love to all the family, your loving son Bernard.

We leave our billets at 5.30 pm tonight and at dawn Saturday morning, July 1st 1916, I come to close grips with the Hun in his own trenches. The money is all French. I do not want the family to grieve too much.


From the family photos he was the best looking, and from the memories of his many siblings, the best loved. He was certainly one of the bravest. My father, 7 years his junior, hero-worshipped him. None of the family ever forgot him.

Sheila's books can be found on the Books We Love  website and on Amazon
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