Unasked questions

I came across an archive of correspondence sent to an historian called Colin Hughes in 1974. He posted an advert in the local papers of Wales asking for information from any survivors or any material on a book he planned to write on the 38th Welsh Divisional attack on Mametz Wood in July 1916.

Some of the documents were scanned and uploaded. The responses came from the men who had survived those hazardous days of the attack on Mametz Wood and in particular the former fiancé of a man who did not survive that attack.

But it was the simple phrase on one of the responses which caught my eye:

I was there July 10th 1917.

It was the simplicity of the statement. I was there. Sixty years afterwards, the memories had not clouded from the survivors’ minds. They remained in crisp, proud and sombre existence.

Now in 2017, I’m just pleased that Colin Hughes asked the question.

The book he wrote was published: Mametz: Lloyd George’s Welsh Army at the Battle of the Somme. It is a book I will go and search out.





Commemoration is seen as something more associated with the fallen heroes of World War One. It is sprinkled across our consciousness. In village halls and cemeteries. In churches and villages across the land. The memorials that sprung up after the end of the war were one symbol of that joint commemoration – to immortalise those who didn’t come home at the end of the war.

But for many commemoration was a chance to say thank you. An opportunity to express the gratitude when men and women you never knew, fought on behalf of you, for you. Returning employees were greeted with high teas and cash gifts. A local expression of a thank you that never seemed quite enough.

The servicemen and women were issued with medals, bravery awards and citations from a grateful government and nation. All too often these found their way into pawn shops.

Men who died on their return – some were given the full honours of a military funeral. They deserved nothing less.

But for most – commemoration was the patronage of the ‘Poppy Day’ – inaugurated in 1919 it was an annual reminder of Armistice Day. A reminder of the cost of war but also a reminder about the responsibilities of war. The ex-servicemen and women who served only to return to face personal, economic, social and physical issues long after the war had ended.

Peace perfect peace

As the Armistice was signed at the duly agreed time at the duly agreed date – 11 am on the 11th November 1918 – the war was over.

It must have been a day like any other. Duties to perform. Rifles to clean. Battle lines to protect. Then their commanding officers informed their men that at 11 o’clock the Great War was over. For many men who had enlisted in August 1914, after over 1500 days, they now had to contemplate what life meant for them now.

Surreal it must have been. Staring at danger, at death, at men like them across no man’s land – now it was over.

But what happened at 11:01 on Armistice Day 1918? What thoughts flooded through Tommy’s mind? Hope? Guilt? Relief? Impatience to see loved ones? Fear?

Victory – the war was over. Yet nobody won.

The VC who found bravery in blindness

Angus Buchanan became affectionately known as the blind VC.

Born in Coleford in the Forest of Dean, reminders of the man remain in the Angus Buchanan recreation ground and in the stories of the Foresters whose legacies burn beyond their life times.

In November 1917, uniformed Captain Buchanan would stand to the applause of tens of thousands on Durdham Downs in Bristol as he was invested with a Victoria Cross by King George V.  The highest award of bravery the military can bestow was given to this man.

The difference – Angus Buchanan was blind – he had been shot by a sniper in the head.

Some might define him by his actions in 1916 where he was twice commended for his actions in Gallipoli, where unlike many he was wounded and survived, and in Mesopotamia where he saved comrades from no-man’s land.

One cannot write those words without a mental glance, a trick shot image of machine fun fire, of unenviable warfare, of deathly conditions and illness – but these were men of hardy stock.


I came across the tale of a man who had been served for over 10 years in the regular army before the war began. Let’s call him Jim.

Jim had been mobilised like so many others from the reserves when war was declared in August 1914. He fought at Mons, was wounded and then captured by the Germans.

Whilst the battles of the early war came and went, whilst compatriots misted into ghosts, Jim was imprisoned in Germany. For over two years, Jim tried to escape. But recaptured, he was subjected to brutal treatment.

After the Armistice in November 1918, Jim was finally released like so many others heading homeward. Before he was finally discharged from the army, he spent some time in a hospital patching up his physical and mental frailties before finally being released in February 1919. Homeward bound nearly five years later…

For prisoners of war, like Jim, what memories clung to them? Did Jim survive long after his release? Did the release give him everything he wanted, a return to what he wanted? Was it better or worse to be a POW behind the lines?

The Family Death

It seems to be that as the rejoicing and good spirits of people hushed when as one by one, the men returned, that war had done its damage to the families of its actors. There is a kind of understandable certainty that the dead and missing created an unfillable void in the families when news stumbled home; that these families would never be the same again. But relationships change. What happened as soldiers became men again and returned home to families. Some who were permanently damaged by the war. Some scarred physically. Some to never talk about its costs.

Death has a funny way of changing families – it is change, in its most basic, most permanent. Emotion is raw. It can be unkind, selfish and profound. People change and are changed by death’s arrival. Some become more frank, more truthful, closer but its consequence can be marred by division, argument and silence.

For how many of the following years did the war change the family dynamic? Husband and wife? Father and son? Parents and the war-guilt survivor?


How many families became divided when reunited after the war? Rejoicing followed by argument. A reality of life after death.