Autumn and Ancestors

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It is time to turn the calendar as we welcome the ninth month of the year and I can hardly believe that we are three-quarters of the way through 2017. September heralds many things including the publication of the autumn issue of Evergreen on the 6th, although lucky subscribers receive their copies well in advance of publication date (click here to arrange a subscription).

Among the fascinating articles in the new issue is a particularly poignant piece about a journey made by a group of friends to the former First World War battlefields on the Western Front. Their visit took them to Ypres and Passchendaele, stopping at the military museums and paying tribute to the thousands of brave soldiers who are remembered at cemeteries and memorials including Tyne Cot and the Menin Gate.

Many of you will have seen the moving reports of the Passchendaele centenary commemorations earlier this year. What always strikes me is that the enormity of that horrific conflict never diminishes with the passing of the years. At one time I think there was a fear that, as the last survivors of “the war to end all wars” passed away, the link with the conflict would fade and so too would the conviction to highlight and remember the immense sacrifices of that generation. Thankfully that has not been the case, if anything I think the reverse has been true. Much of this has been driven by the ongoing awareness of the role of our Armed Forces today and, on a more personal level, the tremendous interest in family history and discovering the part that our ancestors had to play in past events and centuries.

Although I was always mindful of the importance of Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday – right from my childhood – this has increased with age and been heightened by starting to research my own family history. After tracing my grandmother’s ancestry back to the 1840s (Staffordshire roots, with a hint of Irish and even a surprising Spanish connection!) I recently started looking at my grandfather’s heritage. I was only four when he died, so my memories of the upright, determined man who looks out at me every day from a sepia photograph are limited. However, listening to the recollections of my mother and her siblings, I have built up a picture of a father who, like so many others, enlisted to serve King and Country in the First World War. We have two pictures of him standing proudly in his uniform – perhaps unaware of what awaited him across the Channel - and with the help of other relatives, I am discovering more about his wartime service.

Of course, Grandad was one of the lucky ones who survived, well, I say lucky, but I know and can only imagine how the terrible scenes that he had witnessed in Ypres (we know he was there) must have mentally scarred and haunted him for the rest of his life. Like many of those who served in both wars, these were the generations who would never talk about their war service and, knowing what we do now about the horrors they endured, it is understandable. Who would want to recall such brutality and the hellish conditions? They coped silently and stoically by trying to rebuild their lives, with painful emotions locked away.

For many of us who follow, though, we feel the need to know and connect with the past and our ancestors. It might only be through photographs, documents and the places familiar to our predecessors, but they are part of us and have helped shape our lives and the world. Their stories are our history and it is up to us to remember.

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