Yesterday, at 11 o’clock, Britain came to a standstill. Not just at cenotaphs and war memorials, but in town centres and shopping malls, too. It was the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, and the two minutes’ silence was observed to mark the armistice that ended the First World War in 1918. All the more poignant since this year is the 100th anniversary of the start of that war.
888,246 ceramic poppies surround the Tower of London, each commemorating one of the British and Commonwealth lives that were lost in the four years of war between 1914 and 1918. I confess my eyes filled as I watched the ceremony broadcast live from the Tower at 11 o’clock when a young Army cadet ‘planted’ the last of the poppies, and the Last Post was played.
Here is the story of just one of those soldiers represented by a poppy in the moat of the Tower – Stanley Charles Garnar, who was my grandfather’s younger brother, born in September 1897. The family lived in a small village near Colne, in East Lancashire. This photo shows him with his three sisters and their father, probably around 1906.
Stanley, like his siblings, probably left school aged 12, and went to work in the local weaving mill. Just before his 17th birthday, the First World War broke out, and three months later, in November, 1914, Stanley enlisted. I wonder if this family photo was taken just before he left home to begin his military training? Stanley is the one sitting cross-legged on the ground, and my grandfather is on the far right of the back row.
I’ve done quite a lot of research about Stanley’s army career. He joined the 2/7th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, but it wasn’t until the beginning of 1917 that he finally went out to the Western Front. His battalion saw successful action against the Germans in northern France in the spring of 1917, spent the summer on coastal defence in Belgium, and took part in the Battle of Passchendaele in October 1917.
They stayed in Belgium during the winter but moved to northern France again at the beginning of March 1918, in readiness for the expected German Spring Offensive. On March 21st, the day when the enemy launched their offensive, Stanley was killed (with many of his comrades) at Templeux-le-Guerard, which is a small village in the Somme department of Picardy.
I imagine that his parents received the dreaded telegram telling them their son was ‘Missing in Action’ but it wasn’t until the beginning of 1919, nine months later, that they received official confirmation of his death from the Red Cross.
He was buried in the small war cemetery just outside the village, and my daughter and I visited his grave about 5 years ago. As far as I know, we were the first members of his family ever to see his grave.
There’s an awesome postscript to Stanley’s story. In 2004 I was invited to make a short digital story about Stanley for the BBC. It was shown on television as part of the very first episode of the family history series: Who Do You Think You Are?
The following day, I had a phone call from my aunt, who was 93 at the time. She remembered seeing her uncle in in army uniform when she was a small child, and so she was thrilled to see the photos of him on TV. Then she said, “And you do know about the German soldier, don’t you?”
Cue puzzled frown from me. “What German soldier?”
She then told me how, several months after the war ended, Stanley’s parents received a letter from a German soldier, together with a photo. It was in German and they had to get it translated. It seemed the soldier had found Stanley dying and had stayed with him. Stanley was clutching a photo of his family, on the back of which he had written his parents’ name and address. Once Stanley died, the soldier kept the photo – and then returned it to his parents.
I don’t know what happened to that letter, but I often wonder if the family photo was the same as the one above. It brought comfort to his parents to know that Stanley hadn’t died alone. The German soldier’s letter represented one small act of humanity in the midst of that horrendous war when so many young men were slaughtered. 888,246 of them.
It was called the ‘war to end all wars’. Sadly it wasn’t. When will we ever learn?