Sunday, 11 November 2012


My mother had an ancient brown Harrods box with a canvas strap in which she kept old photographs.  The box and its contents fascinated me as a child: those faded sepia images of elderly women in long dresses and bonnets; men with moustaches posing stiffly and uncomfortably in three piece suits; young men in uniform.

And then I forgot the box for decades.

After she died I found the box again and regretted that I had never asked her who these people were.  Which of these solemn-faced individuals are my great grand parents, great uncles and aunts?  Or indeed, from the age of some of the barely-visible images, my great, great grand relations.

My father's mother, Emily, had three brothers Edgar, Alfred and Albert and two sisters Caroline (Carrie) and Florence.  I remember Carrie, just, as a small, elderly spinster in a long black dress.  All I have of my other great-aunt and uncles are a few tattered picture postcards - "Dear Emmie, this is a photo we had taken at Eastbourne, we had a good time, will come and see you before long, from your loving brother and sister".  Yes, but which brother and sister? - and those images of young men in three-piece suits and then uniforms.

But there, among the unexplained photos and their many untold stories is one that speaks all too clearly. A cross in a muddy field of crosses with the words:

"In memory of 572074 REN A ELLIS 1\17th London Regt. 
Died of wounds 25.8.17"

From the Commonwealth War Graves Commission I learn more. He is buried in The Huts Cemetery in Belgium, outside Ieper. The cemetery takes its name from a line of huts strung along the road from Dickebusch (now Dikkebus) to Brandhoek, which were used by field ambulances during the 1917 Allied offensive on this front.  Much of the cemetery was filled between July and November 1917 and nearly two-thirds of the burials were of gunners from nearby artillery positions. There are now 1,094 Commonwealth burials of the First World War in the cemetery.

Albert (the baby of the family) had joined the 17th (County of London) Battalion, The London Regiment (Poplar and Stepney Rifles) "A" Company.

He was just twenty-four when he died.

"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, 
We will remember them." 
Laurence Binyon



  1. My father lost his elder brothers in the First World War....he certainly did not forget them...or the folly that sent them to war.

  2. A lovely, poignant post, Sue. Albert looks so young in the photo. His temporary grave marker will probably have been replaced with one of the official white ones which stand in such heartbreakingly long rows in the war cemeteries.

    My 21 year-old great-uncle has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate memorial:

  3. Sue, Fly, Perpetua, thank you for your comments and Perpetua for the link to the story of your great uncle. For me, it's the individual stories that bring home the true horror of war. And sadly Fly, the folly continues.