Monday, 1 February 2016

A family tale of grief and sadness from the Somme

My great-uncle Fred Wood
Nine years ago I decided to find out more about a great-uncle of mine who died in the First World War and had been all but forgotten by my family. A working class boy from Bristol, his name was Frederick Wood and he was my maternal grandfather's younger brother. He volunteered for the army in the early days of war, served as a private in the 1st Somerset Light Infantry, and was still only 19 when he was killed in France on 1 July, 1916 - the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

The effect his death had on my great-grandparents can only be imagined but they probably nursed their grief quietly within their own four walls, just like thousands of other families during the Great War. My grandfather, who survived four years of fighting, certainly never spoke about his brother when he returned from the Front. In those days people suppressed their grief rather than express such feelings, and I believe this was the reason Fred grew so distant in my family's memory.

However, my grandfather squirrelled away several touching mementoes  of Fred - his final letters from France, some postcards, a couple of photos - and when I discovered them in a chest belonging to my uncle they finally brought into focus a figure that had become frustratingly elusive. Those personal effects shed light on the sort of lad Fred was - gregarious, humorous, and mad about football.

Pte FW Wood: 'Assumed Dead' 
His life was cut short when his battalion was one of the first to go over the top at the launch of the Somme offensive. When I visited Picardy I was able to discover, using the war diaries of Fred's battalion, where and how he probably died: it's likely his platoon was hit by a shell that either killed Fred instantly or left him mortally wounded. His body was never found, but his name is carved on the mighty Thiepval Memorial in Picardy.

Now, nine years after my research began, it means a lot to announce that Bristol Cathedral has invited me to stage an exhibition this summer entitled No News of Fred, telling the very personal story of Fred Wood and his death on the Somme. Beginning on 1 June and running until the end of August, the exhibition will mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, and is being presented as part of the Cathedral's WW1 remembrance project We Have Our Lives.

You can read more about Fred, and my grandfather's heartbreaking search to find out what had happened to him on the battlefield, in my book Letters from the Trenches.

By 1916 the ranks of the Regular British Army had been decimated and it was volunteer soldiers who were relied upon to fight the big offensive on the Somme. Many of our civilian forefathers played their part in the fighting, either as volunteers or conscripts. As a result the Battle of the Somme means a lot to the general public and my exhibition will be just one of many projects this summer marking the battle's 100th anniversary.

Paul Coffey's debut novel
One jump ahead, however, is Paul Coffey, a former journalist whose book 'Shadows of the Somme' has been doing well ever since it was published last year. The novel, Coffey's first, was inspired by his visits to the Western Front battlefields and tells two stories in parallel: one set in 1916 and the other in 2016.

The earlier story takes place during and after the Great War, beginning on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. There are gory descriptions a-plenty which leave the reader in no doubt as to the horror of battle, but as the book follows the fortunes of individual soldiers, so the intensity is leavened by simple yet profound questions concerning their motives and morality. The second story is connected to the earlier one through links discovered by protagonist Tom Harris, who becomes drawn into a near-obsessive search of war and genealogy records to discover more about a name on a war grave that happens to catch his eye.

The stories are well researched and told, with links neatly explained, and no hint as to where the plot is taking us until the end when this reader, at least, was taken very much by surprise!

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