The carnage came to a halt on the 11th hour of the 11th day of 11th month, 1918. Later, as the bodies were being reburied in ordered rows, the families of the dead were contacted and told where their loved ones would be laid to rest in perpetuity. They could count themselves lucky in one respect: at least they knew where their family member was buried. Thousands of other families only knew that their loved ones were missing presumed dead, with most either atomised by artillery or swallowed up by the earth. Corpses without name tags or any other form of identification were buried as ‘A soldier of the Great War / known unto God’.
At the bottom of each grave stone, underneath the name and associated regimental or corps badge, the family could choose a line of remembrance. Maude chose an interesting line that, at first glance, appears Biblical: ‘Oh rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him and he shall give thee thy heart’s desire’. In fact, this is a line taken from Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah, an oratorio from the mid-19th Century and an adaptation of Psalm 37:7. We shall never know the reasoning behind Maude’s choice, but one can assume Mendelssohn would have been known to Alf and was maybe this piece was one of his favourites. The section quoted refers to Elijah’s flight into the wilderness after defeating the followers of Baal and Asherah. Suffering greatly, he asks God to kill him but is instead sent an angel who gives him food and sustenance. Did Maude think that Alf, like Elijah, had suffered in the wilderness?
Maude had probably been running Alf’s shops while he was away and now he was gone forever. It must have been a daunting prospect for her as this was still an age when mainstream society believed a woman’s place was at home. Fortunately, she would have had help from other family members, while my grandfather recalled that Joe Cooper was on hand, probably looking after any remaining interests that Alf’s estate had in Coliseum. Nonetheless, the learning curve for Maude must have been steep and her time and energy were dedicated to keeping the family afloat. Ron and Les, although still young boys, were sent to a boarding school and Les later revealed this to be a soul-destroying experience that stayed with him throughout his life.
Worse still, the family fell into financial difficulty almost ten years later. According to Les, a small fortune was lost following the Great Crash of 1929 and during Great Depression of the early 1930s. If true, it could have hardly come at a worse time as Cooper Brothers had gone bust in 1927, owing £20,000 in liabilities, a hefty sum for the time. The record companies were wound up in the subsequent liquidation, including Coliseum and anything Alf’s estate might have invested in or been owed. Perhaps it was this and not the Crash to which Les referred and that he had mistakenly fused the two events together. Maude was able to retain a shop in the early 1930s, which Les took over when he was old enough. It says something of his abilities that he succeeded in making it a success despite his youth. He also met his future wife, Joan, when she came in one day looking to buy some goods. Les asked her for a date and the rest, as they say, is history. However, there is a sobering irony here: this twist of fate, to which my mother, brother and I all owe our existence, was only possible because Les was running the shop due to Alf’s death.
Going back to 1917, we discovered Alf’s family had suffered far more agony than we ever knew. Logging on to the War Graves Photographic Project (TWGPP) database, Alf’s final resting place was listed as Earlsfield, near Clapham Junction, which was clearly not the case as he was buried in Roclincourt. Intrigued, my mother made a small donation and received an image of grave, which actually proved to be the final resting place of Eliza and Constance, Alf’s mother and sister. Both had died in 1917. Alf’s name was listed at the bottom, noting that he had fought and died in the Great War. The wording is ambiguous and led to the understandable confusion with the TWGPP.
Still, it was suprising to see that his mother and sister had also died in the same year. What had happened? Tuberculosis, or TB as it was known; Constance died of the disease in June, followed by Eliza in December. And Alf was killed in November. It must have been a horrific period for William, the surviving father: a daughter, a son and a wife all dead within the space of six months. Les never mentioned this grave, which suggests he was unaware of it. Neither did he mention that his grandmother and aunt had died of TB. Perhaps William and Maude never discussed these matters with the two boys and, given the pain they must have already felt over the loss of Alf, it is understandable why.
What about Philip?
For many hardened First World War veterans the idea of instant death held no fear. It was the thought of a painful wounding – one that left the body wracked and ruined, or led to a slow and tortuous demise – that haunted their imaginations. In an age where body armour primarily consisted of a helmet,* there was a far higher chance that damage to the human frame from shrapnel and flying debris would be both deep and severe. To make matters worse, modern casualty clearing was still in its infancy. Injured soldiers that survived the initial trauma often died on the way to a clearing station or during the immediate stages of post-combat surgery. Some of the most harrowing memoirs and recollections of the First World War detail the battle to save lives behind the frontlines.
*Although there was a roaring trade in rudimentary armoured vests etc. Some men swore these were vital, others believed they were near useless.
But even if a wounded soldier was successfully stabilised, he still faced the threat of post-operative infection and disease. This was a dangerous hazard in an age without antibiotics and other life-saving drugs. Others faced the horror of shrapnel being left inside their frames. This was not because the surgeons were deficient in skill, but simply because they lacked the technology to conduct successful operations. Amputation of mangled limbs was all too common and the sight of men returning from the front with arms and legs missing is well known even to this day. Prosthetic limbs could at least grant some degree of independence.
For serious cases, the state tried to create worthwhile jobs, but badly burned or disfigured combatants faced an enormous uphill struggle to re-enter mainstream society. For the wounded and maimed, the government also paid a compensatory sum and topped up their war pensions. However, it was lacklustre in officially recognising post-traumatic stress, which was then defined as shell shock. The worst of all wounds was paralysis or, to be more precise, total paralysis. Something of the deep, dark fear that surrounded this topic was a central theme in the 1938 novel and 1971 film adaptation Johnny Got His Gun. Total paralysis was the fate of Lt Philip Young, the officer who had sent Maude the letter of condolence and had enabled the family to trace Alf’s story.
Several months after Alf’s death, 243 MG Coy was incorporated into 31 MG Bn. It was still operating in the Gavrelle/Oppy region and had avoided the main thrust of the vast German offensives that started in spring 1918. But just before and during the offensives, which occurred to the south of 31 MG Bn’s sector, the fighting along their section of the front intensified. Recalling Alf’s fate of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Lt Young was struck in the neck by a piece of shell on 11 April 1918. The metal lodged in his spinal column causing ‘total paralysis of the trunk and legs and of the right arm,’ according to his medical files. These add that it ‘was not advisable to operate’ and that ‘the wound is still discharging and he is gravely ill.’ Young was transferred to the Empire Hospital for Officers in London. He clung on for several months and then died, being buried by his family in a West London cemetery, near Cheam.
Reading deeper into his files, a disturbing series of events comes to light. While Young was struggling in the hospital, the War Office was dragging its feet in paying his entitlements for the grievous wounds he had received. In fact, it also appears the War Office was busy failing others in the same hospital and the hospital’s commanding officer wrote to his immediate superiors damning this failure. It is worth quoting this letter at length as its contents are revealing:
‘This hospital is for paralysed officers … for some reason or other, just recently we have had great difficulty in obtaining a proper reward in these cases [of paralysis]. Lt Young received this morning a note to say that he was being granted 17/6d a day by Messrs Cox [Young’s bank]. There is no word of a lump sum gratuity ... This matter is of great importance. I am sure that people would not like to know that paralysed officers were being in any way shabbily treated, but as we are in charge of these officers we shall feel it in our duty to take this matter before the highest authorities unless we get proper answers to our letters dealing with these subjects and due consideration to the nature of the cases that we write about. Last year the awards were reasonable and fair, but this year there has been great difficulty in obtaining proper consideration of these paralysed cases.’
This was stern stuff and the reaction of those higher up was anger at being told the tawdry truth they themselves had created. Threats were levelled back towards the hospital’s commanding officer. However, his letter and other appeals seemed to have worked, with Young soon in receipt of financial assistance, albeit begrudgingly. Sadly, he died shortly afterwards and the War Office promptly demanded repayment of his award. To make matters worse, Young apparently owed his bank a trifling sum on his death. It now requested repayment, which was vigorously resisted by Young’s brother and other family members. Even for the time, both the state and the bank were engaged in an egregious display of penny pinching. It is sad to recall behaviour like this still persists.
Echoes from the past, particularly those of family history, have strange ways of making themselves heard long after they appear to have faded. Alf Adams’ story is an excellent example of this. As we have noted, my grandfather’s immediate family rarely discussed Alf, reflecting the ‘best not talk about it’ attitudes that prevailed among their generation. But just before my grandfather’s death, we were up late one night and discussed the First World War and Alf’s role within it. How I’d like to have that conversation now! At the time I only knew about a third of the story – if that. The questions I’d ask today might well have jogged his memory further and who knows what his answers might have revealed? Which leads me to this aside: for those you thinking of asking relatives about the past but are unsure or wary, just pluck up your courage and enquire before it is too late.
There were three major branches behind by my research: general material, the Internet, and the National Archives. I always say that someone about to embark on family history project should read as much general material on the topic as possible. In this instance, there were a lot of books available and careful consideration needed to be made about what to read through and what to skim. Be aware that battlefield guides, particularly those by Pen and Sword, are very useful to have at hand. You should read these materials in two ways: firstly, to keep an eye on the general overview and, secondly, to note the minutiae that might have affected your ancestor’s life.
The internet is obviously one of the most powerful tools in the research armoury. Although it needs stressing that much of what you read should be proofed against other material. Wikipedia is a good resource but clearly not the gospel truth. Remember too that the internet is an excellent tool to contact others with specialist knowledge. I had just finished reading an excellent battlefield guide to Gavrelle and discovered that its author had posted a great deal of his other research online. I contacted him and he kindly emailed me a map that listed Tyne Alley and North Tyne Alley, which were slightly to the west of the maps I originally looked at. He suggested that Tyne Support, the spot where Alf was killed, was probably a communication line close to these trenches.
This information allowed me to use to transpose the battlefield map of then onto a Google map of now. Luckily for me, the villages of Gavrelle and Oppy have remained relatively the same size and the road between them, which was cut through by the frontline all those years ago, still ran along a similar route. With these points of reference, I had a fairly good idea of where Alf might have fallen.
It is always worth googling the name of your ancestor and throwing in a pertinent date: long shots sometimes hit their mark. This proved true when I entered Alfred Adams into The War Graves Photographic Project (TWGPP) database. That the grave was wrong proved to be incredibly valuable because it turned out the TWGPP had listed the final resting place of Constance and Eliza, which we knew nothing about. The true horror of 1917 for the surviving family members was now made apparent. For those unsure where their ancestors lie, always, always check with the databases of the Commonwealth War Grave Commission and the TWGPP. These institutions are also excellent in lending a helping hand if you get stuck.
Archives and museums
The bulk of files relating to First World War soldiers were destroyed. But you might be lucky. For those who do not have this advantage (like me), unit diaries are invaluable; in Alf’s case, this was the diary of 243 MG Coy. At a wider level, it is always useful to examine divisional diaries and other related material. In 31 Division files, for example, there were some excellent maps I could check and reference.
You might find a lot of archive language hard to understand or the referencing points difficult to comprehend. Don’t be afraid to ask archive staff for pointers: they have an excellent understanding in research difficulties and how to solve them. For example, at the National Archives there was a chap there who was brilliant in helping me track down Lt Philip Young’s files. They also have a good grasp of other files that may interest you further. Sadly, those accursed microfilm machines are still prevalent at the time of writing, so you might need help in loading the reels. Happily, there is a great deal more being made digital seemingly with every passing day.
Don’t forget that the National Archives also have excellent large-scale maps ready for viewing. Seeing them spread out across a table can give a wider understanding of the region as it was. Troop dispositions are often marked in great detail. The maps usually run in series, so one can see the changing shape of the front and where units were deployed in general. The series I used was WO 153/104.
Finally, do not forget the humble regimental museum (sadly the MGC was not established long enough to gain one, although it does have an association that performs excellent work). Here one can find other diaries, rare books and artefacts. The curators are also experts in their subject and I’ve often spent a lot of my time chatting away with them. They can also help with photographs, identifying distinguishing insignia etc.
Once my research was complete both regarding Alf Adams and Ernie Lewis (see The Importance of Ernest feature), I thought it would be wonderful for us, as a family, to visit their graves and pay our respects. Regarding Alf, we visited the Gavrelle/Oppy sector, and reached the fields roughly where he fell. Under clear blue skies, with the summer sun beating down, I found it hard to believe that I was standing in a place that had witnessed such abject misery.