Last weekend, on November 11th – Remembrance Day I recalled our family history with the military going back even further than the Great War of 1914 -18. What is worth thanks for that history is that my direct ancestry on my father’s side, all survived these terrible wars. Then that got me tangled into playing with the significance of this year 2017, in terms of commemorative dates for a grandfather who I had the opportunity to have met only twice, a great grandfather I never met and of course my own father.
Thanks in large part to my brother’s persistent efforts to track and record our family tree there is much detail well documented, with some facts in actual story passed on and the rest, sketches only left up to the imagination as to what these people actually thought or witnessed of war. The fortunate part is that I have known these great people, even if for a short time as with my grandfather or only through staring into their eyes in an old photograph as in the case of my great grandfather.
So what’s with the 2017 milestone?
Robert George was born 175 years ago in 1842. At age 17, he joined the 21st Royal Scots Fusiliers and as recorded in the family tree notes “he seems to have had a typical Victorian era military career”. From what can be gleaned from his military records, he was quite the character – well travelled and somewhat ruckus in his career, as he saw duty in such far off places as Rangoon and Fort St.George, Madras.
Robert George 1842- 1920
It was 120 years ago in 1897 that my grandfather was born. Thomas Herbert served with the Somerset Light Infantry and suffered a gas attack in the 1916 Somme campaign. He was honourably discharged as disabled. Forty-five years ago in 1972, I spent a summer month with Tom before he died that October. I recall him driving me to Poltimore House outside Exeter, which was at that time a hospital, to visit an old army mate of his who was also a WW1 veteran.
My father Colin was in the Coldstream Guards in WW2, fought and was severely wounded in Belgium. It took him a year to recover from it. Most of this time was back in England in Nottingham and on the Earl of Devon’s Powderham Castle estate outside Exeter, which was for a time used for rehabilitation, as there appears to be a Coldstream Guards connection with the earl’s family at the time. Seventy years ago in 1947, my father came to Canada.
On Remembrance Day, this is where my mind went with these 2017 anniversary dates for three previous generations who served in the British military and through thick and thin survived for me today to remember their lives. I suppose one of the sad thoughts that filtered through my mind on the Sunday morning after the 11th, was the fact that there are many cousins of mine, and their children now, who never knew these people and likely have never heard of them or their stories.
Remembrance of resemblance & the great yarn teller gene
For me though on this November 11th, I could still hear my father’s voice. And there was a memory from forty-five years ago. My grandfather took me to Tavistock (one of his favourite places in his later years). As he told the story, I could faintly see the ghost of his father Robert George who liked to step out on the balcony of the conservative club, still in the town square, and survey all and sundry that was only his to see. My guess is the great yarn teller gene has passed down from all three of these men.
Then all this left me thinking, what longevity has our remembrance? Hopefully as long as we keep telling the stories in our lifetime and pass them on to those who are interested. One of the lines my father borrowed for one of his farewell retirement dinners was, “old soldiers never die, they simply fade away.”
Well not yet faded. Who knows two hundred years from now? All this will be the stuff of history, like the faded tales of soldiers from the Napoleonic wars have become. Yet the concept and public purpose of Remembrance Day will continue in my lifetime and no doubt over time evolve as a collective remembrance of all soldiers named and unknown, even if our direct family stories may get lost in the mists of time.
For now however, in our present time, may we continue to care for the living veterans of modern day wars as we hope their brave stories pass to future generations, rolling on in much the same tradition, where remembrance still has its meaning and relevance.