I am not a researcher into the Great War. I know little of the politics that caused it or the grand designs of those that perpetrated it but, as a child, the names of Ypres, Arras and the Somme were as familiar to me as were those of the local towns and cities of my native East Midlands. My maternal grandfather, sprightly until his death aged ninety, in 1987, would tell all his grandchildren, whether or not they really wanted to listen, of his adventures on the Western Front . It seems that I was virtually alone in wishing him to repeat these stories. His children had heard these same tales many times and to most of his grandchildren the mud and deprivations of Flanders were a poor competitor to a "Beatle" filled life in the mid nineteen sixties.
Corpral Charles Harry Goodwin, Army Cyclist Corps (" you didn't get very far on a bike in a trench m'lad!"), was the only person with whom I discussed the war. In retrospect this seems surprising as there must have been thousands of members of Kitchener's old army still around at that time. "Harry" was the only veteran I have known. I now polish his medals and his Cap Badge and treasure them as I know he would wish. There was never any need to research his war service. I knew it by heart. Just in case I forgot anything, he wrote his memoirs to remind me.
It wasn't until my early teenage years that I discovered that I had another relation who had seen active service. My father had been one of twelve siblings. His own father, a plasterer by trade, had married twice producing a batch of six children from each union. My father, born seven years after the end of the War was of the second brood. The oldest child (from the first marriage), Edward or "Ted" as he was known, was born in the last year of the Victorian century. My father told me that Ted had died in the Great War but he had no idea when or where as his own father would never speak of it. Once, my father expressed an interest in locating and visiting the grave of his older brother and I agreed to help. Neither of us had a clue as to how to go about it; all we had was his name. Still, we had years ahead of us to find out didn't we?
Sadly we did not. My own father died a short time later. It was several years before I decided to try to find "Ted's" corner of a foriegn field. I saw it as a debt to my own father, as well as a journey back into the history of those dark days described so vividly in my grandfather's tales. The only surviving member of the first group of six children was an aunt, now well into her eighties. Although her memory of yesterday's events seemed to owe much to guesswork, her recall of things long past was far more reliable. Her brother, a plasterer working with his father, had joined up in the spring of 1918, terrified that he would be too late and miss all the action. She remembered that her father was against his son rushing into the War but all his "friends were over there" and " if he did not join now" it would surely all be over, with him "playing no part". It is hard to believe but, in 1918, after all the carnage of the Somme and Ypres, the War still appeared as a great adventure to some young men still tied, by constraint of age, to England.
After his son had left for France my aunt recalls her father regularly visiting the Post Office to collect letters, rather than wait for delivery. News of his eldest son was of paramount importance. On one such visit in early September he received the telegram that all parents of servicemen dread. My aunt found him, ghostly white, in the alley at the side of their terraced house. He explained that Ted had been killed in France. She was nine years old but she knew that the death of his son had broken her father's heart.
All I had to go on was an old sepia photograph, that my aunt produced, of a young man in army uniform. He wore a khaki cap and what appeared to be an expression of surprise. With little idea of how to proceed further, I rang a friend whom I knew to be a member of the Western Front Association. He suggested that identification of the cap badge, if it was visible, would give me the regiment. A trip to my local bookshop, and a quick thumb through a small volume on regimental badges, told me that my uncle had been a member of the King Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI). I then gleaned further information from the publication "Soldiers Died In The Great War; KOYLI". I discovered that Private Edward R. Mills, 63393, 2nd KOYLI, had been killed in action in France on 11th August 1918.
My next step was to obtain his death certificate. This was not quite as easy as I anticipated. All service personnel killed overseas have their records held in Liverpool and not at the Registry Office of their residence in the UK. It took some time but eventually the document arrived, and with it a minor mystery. According to this certificate Ted had died on the 9th of August. While only a small discrepancy, it was nevertheless important. To resolve it, I contacted both the War Graves Commission and The Light Infantry Office, West Yorks., for further information. Both replies confirmed 11th August as the true date of death and as proof Major CMJ Deedes, Regimental Secretary, forwarded copies of the Regimental War Diaries for the period 8-18th August. From this I could see that the only day within this period that the Regiment had seen action, or suffered any losses, was the 11th. On the previous night the regiment had been marched the few miles from Domart, south east of Amiens, and deployed at the village of Beaufort. The following day's action being part of the battle of Amiens which was to be the beginning of the German's final retreat before the war drew to its close. The attack was scheduled for 4:30 am on the morning of the 11th but was postponed as Brigade HQ could not guarantee having all the troops ready for this time. Zero hour was set for 9:20 am. The attack managed to advance about 1000 yds, but owing to heavy enemy machine gun fire and impassable barbed wire it was brought to a halt. At midnight the forward troops were withdrawn to Beaufort as it was established that only artillery or tanks could dislodge the machine guns. Losses for the day were as follows:
1 Officer killed and four wounded.
29 other ranks killed, 79 wounded.
Ted Mills was one of the 29, presumably cut down as he scrambled to find his way through a tangle of unbroken wire.
No wire now. Ted Mills was killed as he crossed this peaceful cornfield.
From the War Graves Commission I discovered that Ted was listed as "Killed, missing in action." This meant that he had no known grave. It is likely that when the troops withdrew at midnight on the 11th, they left the dead where they had fallen. The bodies may have been recovered later and buried as "Unknown Soldiers" or they may have simply been obliterated by shellfire during subsequent attacks. Either way, I was never going to visit his grave. However, all was not lost. The War Graves Commission informed me that he was remembered on the Memorial at Vis-en-Artois on the Arras-Cambria road. My pilgrimage began to take shape.
The Memorial to the Missing - Vis-en-Artois
In the Summer of 1996 I visited Ypres, and the Somme battlefields for the first time. I was deeply moved by both the Menin Gate Memorial and the Thiepval Memorial to the missing. I was accompanied by my 5 year old son (also named Ted Mills), my brother-in-law, and his two young daughters. At the Thiepval Memorial, whilst standing in the great archway reading some of the thousands of names recorded there, I chanced to look down into the cemetery below and saw my son walking along the rows of graves, gently touching each one as he passed. I walked down the steps to his side and asked him what he was doing. "Telling each soldier that I am sorry he died" was his reply. I smiled and turned away unable to speak.
Midway along the straight road from Arras to Cambrai can be found the Vis-en-Artois Cemetery and the Memorial to the Missing. We parked the car and took little time in finding the name E.R. Mills etched into the stone wall. Seven letters to commemorate a life. As I looked at this, it occurred to me that I was the first member of the family to stand here and pay my respects. No-one else had ever read the name on this wall and been able to put a face to it. Maybe no-one ever would again.
In each British War Cemetery can be found a book in which visitors may leave a message, pay their respects etc. I wrote the date, my name and a short message of remembrance. As small children will, my son, who was just learning to write, asked if he may leave a note also. As his writing was none too accomplished, I was concerned that he should not deface the book. I need not have worried. His message, "we came to say goodbye," written in a child's uncertain but readable hand, made my own lines seem clumsy and ill-chosen. As I should have foreseen, he immediately ruined the moment by demanding a pee.
After a short stay and a picnic we pointed the nose of the Volvo south west and set off in search of the village of Beaufort. It was not difficult to find. It stands now, much as I assume it stood in 1918; a cluster of houses set in a flat plain of farmland. The few wooded copses serve to break the monotony of an otherwise bland outlook. From my position on the eastern edge of the village, I looked out across the sun scorched fields towards a huddle of trees about a mile or so away.
Somewhere between where I stood and the distant woods, uncle Ted met his end. My son had the novel idea of asking the lone farmer, traversing a field nearby, if we could borrow his mechanical digger to search for the body. He took some dissuading but eventually I managed to convince him that if his great uncle was still under these fields, it was better to let him rest in peace. If Edward was watching us I am sure he would have offered a wry grin.
During our visit to Ypres, some days previously, I had purchased one of the ubiquitous wooden crosses, adorned with a paper poppy, that can be seen in any British cemetery in France or Belgium. I really had no reason for doing so except as a memento of our visit to The Great Cloth Hall Museum. Here in Ted's last resting place I felt the need to mark our presence in some way. Looking round I noticed an old tree situated at the entrance to the village. So old, in fact, it was being supported by stout iron bars. I was sure this had to have been here in 1918. Beneath its green canopy Ted Mills 1996 placed the symbol in the soft earth and paid tribute to his namesake who died 78 years earlier. Together, we had tied up a long forgotten loose end.
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Copyright © Chris Mills, January, 1997.
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