One day early in 2006, I called on my father to find that he had, unbeknown to me, been writing his memoirs. It was fascinating stuff. The story of a child born into a very poor and ordinary family, one of eight children, living in a two-up, two-down cottage in a small Derbyshire village. He had also started to do a bit of family tree research and his youngest brother had given him an old biscuit tin full of ancient family documents, birth and marriage certificates, etc.
In the tin was a tatty brown envelope which said on it "letters concerning first husband's death". Intrigued, I looked at the contents and found this:
"Dear Mrs Briddon, I regret to say your husband, Pte J Briddon has been seriously wounded. He is in the above hospital............."
And then this:
"Dear Mrs Briddon, I regret to say your husband died yesterday
and was buried in a cemetery nearby."
A cemetery for French soldiers that we came across.
Emma Briddon, my grandmother, had been 24 and already had 3 young children when her husband John was killed in the First World War. Imagine how she must have felt when she got these letters, dated only two days apart. He had probably already died by the time the first letter arrived. There was little financial help for widows in those days. She received a small amount from the army and some money from charity and tried to make ends meet by such things as taking in washing. I can hardly imagine how difficult it must have been having to do washing for richer folk when the house had no heating or running water, just a coal fire and an outside tap.
Emma remarried and had 5 more children, one of whom was my father. Her second husband, George Marsden, had run away from home at fourteen and lied about his age to get into the Navy to escape his own father, a wicked man who ill-treated his wife and children. Two of his brothers, Sam and Enoch, also ran away, to the army. Both died in the Great War.
I felt inexplicably compelled to visit their graves in France. We were going to visit Pete & Cyn in their house near Perpignan in June so we decided to make our way via the war graves. We found all the information we needed very quickly on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.
Our first stop was a little hotel in the town of Albert. It turns out that both Sam Marsden, my great uncle, and John Briddon, my grandmother's first husband, died in the battle for Albert. They were buried at La Neuville cemetery, near Corbie, a very short distance from the River Somme. John died aged 24 on the 6th July 1916 and Sam aged 36 on the 14th August.
A cemetery for French soldiers that we came across.
The cemetery was easy enough to find but not easy to get to. The road deteriorated and became a farm track and we had to abandon the bikes and make the rest of our way on foot. We had stopped at a florist in town and bought roses to plant on the graves.
I was pleased to find that it was a small and completely deserted cemetery. It was beautifully kept, with only 800 or so graves, well away from any roads and surrounded by fields. We found John and Sam's graves very easily, planted the roses, left a comment in the visitors book and said farewell. The whole experience was incredibly moving. I was glad they weren't in one of the enormous cemeteries with coachloads of visitors.
That afternoon, we found Enoch Marsden's entry on the memorial at La Ferte-sous-Jouarre. Enoch had been in the doomed expeditionary force and died on 20th September 1914. The memorial has thousand of names of soldiers without graves. It was huge and I wondered how on earth we would find him but as I looked up I found I was standing right underneath his name. The visitors book had been removed to the Mairie which was closed for the Bank Holiday. I would like to go back one day to sign it and maybe leave him some flowers.
We spent the night at Nevers and whilst we were waiting for our dinner I sent my father a text to say we had found all the graves and asked him how old Enoch was when he died. The reply came back - "he was seventeen". At that point it all became too much for me and in the middle of the restaurant I burst into tears.
Imagine this: You are a seventeen year old boy and live in a small village in Derbyshire. You have never been further than Derby in your life. You have a wicked father who drinks and treats you and your mother very harshly. Your brothers have run away, one to the army and one to the navy. It is 1914 and young men are being recruited for the greatest adventure in their lives. This is your chance to escape and do something worthwhile for your country. You proudly wear your new uniform, parade through town to brass bands and cheering well-wishers. You get put on a train to the coast, then on a boat to France and two weeks later you are a dead soldier with no known grave.
In the course of my daily work I often have to deal with boys of a similar age, all mobile phones, bad attitude and bad manners. I sometimes think of Enoch and wonder what his world was like. I also wonder if today's seventeen year olds have any idea at all how lucky they are.