Today marks the date when 100 years ago Great Britain declared it was joining the war against Germany after a series of events triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914. Following the murder of the Archduke and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, the Austro-Hungarian Legation pointed towards Serbian involvement in the assassination and by the 20th July Austria-Hungary had sent troops to the Serbian frontier. Several days later Serbia ordered mobilisation of their troops and Russia arranged for troops to be stationed on the Russo-Austrian frontier. On 28th July 1914 Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and Great Britain warned Germany that it could not remain neutral. The Austrians proceeded to bombard the Serbian capital Belgrade and German patrols crossed the French border. By 1st August the French ordered their military to be mobilised and Germany declared war on Russia while Italy and Belgium announced their neutrality. On the 3rd August Germany declared war on France and Great Britain gave orders for troops to mobilise. On the 4th August Germany declared war on Belgium and the United States declared their neutrality. Great Britain gave Austria-Hungary an ultimatum to stand down from hostilities and when they did not comply a state of war was declared at 11.00pm. Just a couple of days later on the 6th August the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Amphion was sunk by German mines in the North Sea, causing the death of 150 men who became the first British casualties of war. The following day the first members of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) landed in France.
Most people expected it to be a short war, over by Christmas, and little did they know that it would be four long years, filled with the most devastating loss of life many countries had ever seen. Not a city, town or village was left untouched by the loss of life sustained over the bitter campaign. Mother’s lost sons, children lost fathers, and many lost brothers and friends. For some the blows kept on coming, losing son after son as each one was sent out into battle. Many of these men were not meant for a life in the military, they were meant to be tailors, or shopkeepers, or farmers. Instead they were crouching in rat infested trenches, mortar shells exploding around them, waiting for the call to go ‘over the top’ into certain death.
I never fail to be moved thinking of the bravery, naivety, and stark loss of the First World War. To sign your life away on an attestation form, never knowing whether you would be coming home again. To fight for King and Country, against the ‘Hun’ – wondering whether you would see your sweetheart again, feel the warm breath of your sleeping babies or just make it out the other side alive.
I have always felt a strong sense of injustice when I think of the abominable way we treated any conscientious objectors or so-called deserters. These days we have a right to not be made to serve in the military, we have the option to say no. We protest against conflict and we have the ability to come together and make changes. Back then, it was a world away. And we even decided to do it all over again in 1939, and I feel proud of every single person who served in any kind of capacity in both World Wars.
Not many of my direct ancestors served in this conflict, my mother’s paternal grandfather Harry Marshall was away living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from 1912 until his death there in 1919. My father’s paternal grandfather Henry Griffiths I believe remained here doing either mining or farm work. I’ve not found any Army record for him as yet. His brother in law Thomas Brown served – and came home. My father’s maternal grandfather Albert Hallas I believe was kept home to work on the railways. But my mother’s paternal grandfather lost his life – at least that is what we are lead to believe.
My grandmother had a confusing start, born to an unmarried mother under her widowed surname a year before she married her second husband. Mary Ann Pilley had started out life being born in the Maldon Union Workhouse in Essex in 1884 and by 1905 had a daughter Edna Ivy Pilley. In 1908 she had a daughter Amelia who died in 1909 and by 1911 she had a son Frederick, who died aged just 6 weeks old. I believe that Amelia and Frederick and possibly Edna were all children of her first husband Charles Frederick Patmore who she married shortly after Frederick’s death in 1911. In fact on Frederick’s birth certificate Mary Ann pretended she and Charles (known as Frederick) were married, but ended up making a statutory declaration months later that they were not married and to strike Frederick’s name from the entry. Amelia was named for Frederick’s mother, so she was very likely his. In 1913 Mary Ann and Frederick had a son George Sydney Patmore who then died the following year. In 1916 Frederick died of TB, leaving Mary Ann alone with her 11 year old daughter. I believe she may have gone to stay with her sister Sarah for a while in Heybridge before she gave birth to my grandmother Alice in 1918. By 1919 Mary Ann was married to Arthur James Pratt, and went on to have four more children – Arthur James born 1919 and died in 1920, Joyce Edith born 1921, Peggy Olga born and died in 1923 and finally Mary Ann in 1924 – who was named after her mother who passed away days later aged 40. In a letter from Edna to her sister Alice, it seems Alice (or Lal as she was affectionately known as) must have asked about her father, Edna simply stated that she believed he was a Scottish soldier their mother had been engaged to, who then was killed during the war and never came back to marry her. Of course it may not be true, it could be that Edna was just trying to spare Alice the not knowing, or perhaps being the result of a one night stand. I doubt we will ever know. Edna would have been 13 when Alice was born, she probably would have known more about a man her mother was due to marry, but perhaps over the years that knowledge had been lost along the way.
I do know that my father’s grandmother Annie’s brother in law Jack Quiggin served in WWI. It seems that initially he had been in the Boys Brigade before signing up. He had originally been from Douglas on the Isle of Man before coming over to Lancashire. There is a rhyme about the Boys Brigade: “Here comes the Boys Brigade, All covered in marmamlade, Tuppeny Ha’penny pillbox, And half a mile of braid.” The pillbox refers to the style of hat that you can see from the photo of him below. Jack served in the Royal Garrison Artillery in 1916 and by 1918 was in the Royal Engineers. He was apparently gassed in the trenches and lost his sense of smell. He went on to marry Dorothy Large in 1933, they had no children and he died in 1966 in Manchester.
Tonight – around Great Britain, people are choosing to turn off their lights and leave a single candle burning from 10pm – 11pm as a way of remembering the centenary of the commencement of the First World War – and I will be doing this too.
Thank you to every single man and woman who served, be they English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Australian, Canadian, New Zealander, Indian, French, American, whatever nationality… Thank you. We will never forget.