The Hidden Legacy of World War 1

Looking back at 2014, the anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1, I've watched all the celebrations and memorials, observed the perfectly timed publications in book shop windows, listened to the programmes on war poetry, seen the avalanche of ceramic poppies in London and - among the heroes and the victims and the horrors of war - little has been said about the long-term effect of the First World War slaughter on families not just at the time, but down the generations. It wasn't just the deaths of sons, husbands and brothers that caused havoc - the ones who returned often caused much more grief.   Millions died, but millions more came back maimed both in body and mind and families often broke under the strain.

Gt Uncle Charlie in his sailor suit to the left of his mother - my grandmother is standing next to him.
My mother's family only lost one member to the war - my great uncle Charlie - a favourite brother to my grandmother, closest to her in age.   This is a photograph of the whole family taken just before the turn of the century. Charlie is the cheeky looking blonde boy in the sailor suit.

The family had a tradition of serving in the merchant navy, so Charlie was on board ships rather than in the trenches - he's listed as being killed in action three times in the records, but was finally lost in 1917.  He had a wife and young son who lost contact with the family afterwards.  We always wondered what had become of them,  but Charlie's son and his wife made a surprise visit to my mother, a few years ago, just before she died, having traced her through the records.  She was absolutely delighted.  It was a pity my grandmother wasn't there to see it.
Harry with his boxing cup
On my father's side things were very different.  His father, the illegitimate son of an Irish dressmaker and folk singer, joined the Border Regiment in Carlisle and went off to fight in France in 1914. Harry, as he was known, had been a champion boxer, sponsored by Lord Lonsdale, and he was also a footballer, good enough to play in the local league.  He had a very promising future.
A very sun-tanned Harry second from the left at the back.

Harry's football medal
Army life suited him.  He kept a diary during his time in France, which he later typed up and gave to his son.   Harry was going out with an Anglo-Irish girl from a Protestant family working in the cotton mills, Elizabeth Blair. Her father was in the Orange Order and didn't approve of her relationship with a Catholic, so he wasn't allowed to marry her before he left for France.
Harry in his private's uniform in 1914
Harry endured the horrors of the trenches, was promoted to Sergeant and gained a number of medals, which I have inherited.  He was blown up in the battle of the Sommes - gassed and pierced by shrapnel, which lodged in his arms and legs and one piece near his spine which couldn't be extracted.  But it was the mental damage that affected him most.  He came back a war hero but much changed.  Elizabeth wasn't sure that she wanted to marry him, but felt obliged to honour her promise. It was a disastrous decision, leading to a very unhappy life for both them and their children.  Shortly after their marriage my father was born - in the Workhouse, where accommodation was being given to returning war heroes.  My father always remembered the queue outside the gate at dusk every evening, odd characters and 'men of the road' - a few women - all waiting for admission.

Some of Harry's medals
Harry became a writer, worked for the Post Office - which found jobs for many disabled returned servicemen - and ran a touring amateur drama group which entertained in village halls and for private parties.  He wrote the scripts, including Cumbrian dialect monologues.  Harry was very popular and was eventually awarded the Imperial Service Medal by the Queen.

What no one saw behind the public facade, was that Harry had an obsession with little girls - he was a paedophile - something the family has always put down to his 'shellshock' during the war, exacerbated by a virtually sexless marriage.  That's something I can't comment on, but it has affected the family down three generations.   I have his medals and his memoirs and copies of the things he wrote for the newspapers, but they are a tainted inheritance.

When he died, no one could find his birth certificate and it was discovered that he had been using three different names on insurance policies and other official documents.  It was only later that his illegitimacy came to light and it explained a lot.  At the time, the registrar eventually issued a death certificate with all his names on it.  His true name was probably  Hugh Cunningham - sometimes spelled Conyngham.

Harry Slight, otherwise Henry Hugh Cunningham Slight
. War is a terrible and unnecessary thing that blights lives and has repercussions far beyond the immediate conflict.  I would like to think that 2015 will be a more peaceful year than its predecessors, but history doesn't encourage me to hope.



Popular Posts