I have many happy memories of childhood visits to my grandparent’s house, idyllic then, and still so now in recall. Among the pictures on the walls and bookshelves was a studio-taken photograph of a proud man wearing medals, who I would later learn was my great great uncle. I met him once when I was very young, and have a hazy recollection of him laughing and that he gave me a little bit of pocket money – I still have the small picture I bought with it as a souvenir of meeting him.
I would later learn more of his story, and that he was a professional soldier who had joined the army while underage and before even the outbreak of the First World War. As a result he was in the first group sent to France in 1914 right at the outset, he was in the Battle of the Marne, the retreat from Mons, and somehow survived the whole war while working in the incredibly dangerous role of being a Driver in the Royal Field Artillery, at some point earning a medal from the King of Belgium too. There’s a photograph of him somewhere in France or Belgium with his friends, a chalked sign in front of them declaring them the “Hell for Leather Drivers”, and he’s the youngest by far in a group of some impossibly young looking men. Not surprising as even after a couple of years on the front line he was still too young to officially be there.
Later I’d be given his brother’s – my great grandfather’s – medals from that same war. His story and that of his family is incredible – the type of extraordinary heroes who like so many of that generation survived adversity after adversity in a way that’s nearly impossible to imagine now.
I think of them often, never more so than Remembrance Sunday and during the Remembrance moments of Bonfire, not just in Lewes on the 5th but elsewhere too. The Remembrance at Firle Bonfire in 2015 was one of the most poignant I’ve witnessed, and I’ve rarely been more emotional than when I had the honour to carry the “Lest We Forget” at Lewes in 2014, the regimental badges of these ancestors on my bag as always, the brass band playing Elgar’s Nimrod and a full moon bright in the sky.
I think of them too when I’m in antique shops and junk shops and see photographs of anonymous soldiers in piles of old images that once meant something to someone. Those millions of young men who went off to war, nervously, proudly, having their photograph taken before they went, and so many not returning, or returning broken, and every single one an individual story we’ll almost certainly never know anything about.
I normally see these photographs when I’m on the lookout for interesting local memorabilia. A few months ago on one of these searches on the internet I came across a vintage postcard from Seaford, and as that’s where my parents live I bought it for them as a curiosity.
When it arrived I discovered it was older than I’d thought, and that it had been sent by a solider stationed in Seaford at the start of January 1916, as many soldiers were before going to France. The note on the back is typical from that period – full of the everyday, with thoughts dominated by those at home and expressions intensified by absence.
“My dear Florrie” it begins, “I got home quite safe 1130 Seaford. My God it was dark. We could hardly see our hands before us but we managed it somehow.”
I’ve often walked across unlit Sussex hills and streets at night and can imagine this only too well.
It continues, “I hope you got home quite safe dear. The weather here was awful Sunday so they say. I will send you a letter Tues dear. I expect we shall go for a route march Tues if fine. Tell mother that the rolls are lovely. I hope she is quite well.
It is past 7.30, think of me about 9.45 because I will of you, so good night duck. I am writing home Tues so I must close with heaps of love and kisses, from yours forever Reg x x x x x x”
Reg clearly missed Florrie enormously and just like those photographs of anonymous men in uniform and their families it jarred with me that this postcard so lovingly sent was now just a curiosity, disconnected from context and people.
Who were Reg and Florrie? And what had happened at 9.45, a very specific time to remember?
I started looking for clues and drew a blank, reassured at least that the Commonwealth War Graves website didn’t find a Reg who was likely to have been the sender of the postcard. My Mum then turned detective using her vast genealogy experience and found him: Reg was Reginald Brockett, born in Chelsea in 1883, so 32 at the time he sent the postcard. Florrie Siillitoe who he sent it to, was Florence, born in 1887 in Lambeth.
It turns out that Reg survived the war and lived until 1950, marrying Florrie in the summer of 1919 and having a son, also Reginald, in 1921. I’m sure they sent hundreds of postcards like this during the war, from home and from danger overseas, yet there’s a chance that if there’s no surviving family Reg and Florrie would have entirely disappeared from memory had I not bought the postcard for a pound or two. While that’s not unusual of course, something about that possibility is sad.
For me the history of big events – and current events – is all about the individual stories, the people like Reg, like my ancestors, and it’s important that their stories continue to be told, and that we don’t let anonymity become a reason to forget.
Since getting this postcard I’ve got some other abandoned letters I’m researching to find the people and stories behind them, but with this one my favourite part is actually unwritten: my Dad pointed out the angle of the stamp, and remembered from his youth that this had meaning. Sure enough, looking into the “hidden language of stamps” I found that Reg had positioned this one to mean “accept my love”.
I can only imagine what it meant to Florrie to get this card in London in January 1916, and now it’s back in Seaford I’d like to think that Reg and Florrie wouldn’t mind a little bit of their love story being told 100 years on.