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This is the true account of a discovery I made some years ago …
I suppose the hairdressers was a funny place to be talking about the First World War. I was yelling above the sound of the drier about a mystery I was trying to solve. So it was bound to attract attention. I’ve never been renowned for the softness of my voice and when the manager approached I thought she was going to ask me to be quiet. Instead she said, “I think I may be able to help with your problem.”
Could she help, I wondered. It was 1997 and I’d been puzzling over a mystery since the previous autumn when I read a novel about the First World War, a subject I’ve always been interested in. A childhood memory had surfaced and I rang my mother. “Didn’t Dad have a brother who died in the Great War?” I asked.
Mum knew his name had been Harold but she knew nothing more. Dad had died some years before and all his eight brothers and sisters were gone too. There didn’t seem to be anyone I could ask. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was helpful. Harold Henson died in 1915 a lady told me, at the battle of Loos. His regiment had been the Northumberland Fusiliers.
“That can’t be him,” I said, “my father’s family lived in Nottingham.”
“Well,” she continued, “this soldier enlisted in Nottingham and in fact only one Harold Henson died in the First World War so it had to be him.
Why would a Nottingham lad have joined a northern regiment? I was curious to find out about this boy who fought and died for his country at the age of nineteen, and who would have been my uncle. I rang a cousin in Nottingham but he didn’t know any more than I did. With a large family spread around the Midlands there were some cousins I didn’t even know. It seemed an impossible task but my fascination was mounting.
Perhaps officialdom might have the answer. I wrote to the Ministry of Defence but discovered Harold’s documents had been destroyed along with thousands of others during the blitz of 1940. Undaunted, I tried the Northumberland Fusiliers museum. They had no individual records of my uncle but they had the regimental diary of the man who commanded his battalion. Tragically Harold was only in France for fifteen days before he was killed. This seemed to be as far as I could go, but I’d become fond of this boy by now and longed to know more about him.
On Christmas Eve my husband asked me to open one of my presents a day early. “I can’t wait any longer,” he said. “I’ve discovered something amazing and you’ve got to see it.”
He had bought me a book about the Great War, which included personal reminiscences from old soldiers. In the section covering the Battle of Loos there was an entry from a man called Harry Fellows who had been in the same battalion as my uncle.
“Not only that,” my husband said, “Fellows was from Nottingham and had a friend called Henson.”
I could hardly believe it, a breakthrough at last. I wrote to the author of the book asking if I could be put in touch with Mr Fellows’ family. I was sure he held the key to the mystery. I was disappointed when the writer said she was no longer in touch with the family who had supplied her with the memoirs. Once more I seemed to have come to a halt.
This was the point I’d reached that morning in the hairdressers. The day everything changed.
I know someone who’s an expert on the First World War,” the salon manager told me. “He writes books on the subject and I’m sure he’ll be able to help.”
I was willing to try anything so wrote to this man, telling him about my uncle’s painfully short participation in the war, and explaining about the old soldier Harry Fellows whose family might help me. Almost by return of post I got a letter to say that Harry Fellows had been a member of the Western Front Association, I was even given the address of the Nottingham Branch.
I was reluctant to get too excited but once again I wrote a letter giving all the details and hoped I’d hear back soon.
As well as having a loud voice I have pretty sharp hearing and a few days later, as I walked up the drive, I heard the phone ringing. By the time I got indoors the answering machine had picked up the call and I heard a man’s voice saying the very name that had preoccupied me for so long, “Harold Henson.” I grabbed the phone and found myself talking to a man called George. My letter to the Western Front Association had been passed to him because, and I could hardly believe my ears, he was a friend of Mick Fellows, Harry Fellows’ son.
Mick Fellows was stunned to hear from a relative of his dad’s wartime pal. He showed me his father’s war diary and in one entry the mystery of joining the Northern regiment was solved.
Harold, along with several pals, had signed up for the army on a Saturday morning in September 1914. One of these friends was Harry Fellows.
“We want a long ride in a train,” they said to the recruiting sergeant. None of them had been further than Derby before.
“There’s the Duke of Cornwall’s Regiment,” they were told, “or the Northumberland Fusiliers.”
“There’s no football in Cornwall,” one of them said. “We’ll take the fusiliers.”
So began Harold’s tragic army career. A year later, after training, the regiment sailed to France and Harold died in their first taste of action at Loos. As the troops moved forward into the trench Harry Fellows was sent by the commanding officer, with a message for their Captain. He left my uncle’s side and never saw him again; Harold’s body was never recovered. Harry Fellows went on to survive the war and when he died in Nottingham, aged 92, he asked for his ashes to be returned to France to be buried close to his friends.
In 1998 my husband and I decided to travel to France for the 80th Commemoration of the Armistice of the war, and spent four days visiting many battlefields and cemeteries on the Somme and attended the great ceremony in Ypres. We went to Mametz Wood where Harry Fellows’ remains are buried and took part in a short, very moving service to commemorate him and all his fallen comrades.
There was another visit we’d organised, one I would never forget. On our last morning Mick Fellows met us and we drove to Loos. It’s mining country and in November was a bleak, unwelcoming place. Dud Corner cemetery was beautifully tended, grass cut neatly between the graves. Around the perimeter walls huge slabs of stone bore details of those missing in action; it was here that I finally saw my uncle’s name. I had to crane my neck to read it and my husband lifted me up so that I could feel the contours of the carved letters. As we left our poppy crosses, and signed the book of remembrance I thought our mission was complete. Mick Fellows had other ideas.
He took us back through the village of Loos to a farm. We got out of the car and walked along the edge of a well-tilled field that sloped gently up to a ridge. When I realised where we were I couldn’t speak. Me, the one with the big mouth and a line of chat for every occasion – rendered dumb. We were in the field where Harold fell. Mick passed around a whiskey bottle and we drank a toast to my uncle, and all those who marched away to fight and never returned.
Back home I traced as many members of the family as I could to let them know the story I had uncovered. It was a joy to meet cousins I never knew existed; to see faces that bore traces of my own features. I wondered which of us might have looked like Harold, and how different our lives might have been had he come home from the war.
They quickly came to know me as the cousin from Leicester who talked a lot. But I know their lives were also made richer by discovering the uncle whom most had never heard of; who would forever lie in the windswept French countryside; who now, would never be forgotten by his family.
Coincidences come in many guises; this one came in the shape of an enormous chap in shorts, carrying a slab of granite.
But first I must explain about my mother. At the time this strange event took place she was seventy-seven and in poor health. I was very worried about her but she had always been uncomplaining, and seemed content in her little house with her cats, and the home-help visiting every day. My husband and I were having a new kitchen. The units had been installed but we were waiting for the granite worktops to come from a different depot. I had explained about the kitchen to my mum but she didn’t always remember what I’d told her. It was funny how things that happened years ago were as clear to her as crystal and, even in my forties, I loved to hear her talk about the past.
She had been a nursery maid for an aristocratic family during the 1930s. This involved leaving home at the age of fifteen and travelling from Lincolnshire to Surrey. Mum adapted very well to her new life and adored the little children in her care, Henry and Sally. The family was an amalgam of two respected dynasties and had several homes around the south of England. Mum travelled with them and soon learned the way of life in service. Her employers were caring and kind to the staff, and these were very happy times for my mother. Her favourite residence was in Herefordshire where the family owned a large rambling mansion. It was surrounded by beautiful countryside where she walked with the children, gathering hazelnuts and wild flowers.
It was in this lovely house that Mum heard the now famous speech by Neville Chamberlain announcing that this country was at war with Germany. My grandmother insisted Mum return to Lincolnshire to be with her own family. Whatever dark days were to come she insisted they face them together. It was heartbreaking for Mum to leave little Henry and Sally. Years later, in the fifties, she heard that the beautiful Herefordshire house had been destroyed by fire and it tainted the happy memories she had carried all through the war. She never knew what happened to the children.
On the day our granite worktops were to arrive I spoke to Mum on the phone, explaining I would be unable to visit her that day. Soon a van drew up in the lane and one of the most solidly built men I have ever seen stepped out of the cab. He spoke with an accent I didn’t recognise. I put the kettle on while he and his mate began to unload the stone. I couldn’t believe the strength of this man, he wielded sheets of granite as though they were plywood and in no time at all our kitchen was transformed. I poured him a cup of coffee and asked if he had travelled far, I felt this was more tactful than asking about his accent.
“Herefordshire,” he explained. Mention of this county always conjured up my mother’s stories, and for some reason I found myself explaining that she had lived there before the war, little imagining that he would find this remotely interesting. I even told him the name of the rambling mansion. His next words were so unexpected I needed to hang on to the new worktops for support.
“I know that house very well,” he said. “I put a granite worktop in there last year.”
He must have wondered why on earth I looked so shocked. I tried to gather my thoughts. “But the house burned down during the 1950s,” I explained, thinking he had perhaps misheard the name of the house. But he was quite insistent. I tentatively asked if he could remember who occupied the house, and almost swooned again when he answered. It was the same family name from those pre-war days. “They were very nice,” he told me as he was packing up the van, ready to leave. “I’d get in touch with them if I were you.”
Later, when I rang my mother, I couldn’t bring myself to mention it in case it was all a mistake. But that evening I sat and wrote a letter, simply addressed to the head of the house. I explained my mother’s connection with his family and asked if they were indeed the people for whom she had been nursery maid. I also asked if the house had been rebuilt on the same site. Nigel, my husband, could hardly believe the story when he came home. “Don’t build your hopes up too high.” He said.
Two days later we had just returned from tea with Mum when the phone rang. A rather aristocratic voice asked for me. My husband was grinning as he passed me the receiver. Unbelievably this man was the small boy, Henry, whom my mother had cared for all those years ago. He had no memory of her, he had been only five years old when war broke out, but what he said next reduced me to tears. “My wife and I would be delighted if you would bring your mother down to see us.” He said.
We jumped into the car and went back to tell mum the news. I explained the sequence of events, and her face took on a glow I had not seen for many years. She was unable to speak, but went to a drawer, took out a tiny object and placed it in my hand. It was an ancient piece of India rubber, the sort I remembered from childhood.
“Henry gave me that on the day he started school.” She said eventually. She had kept it for sixty-one years.
Some weeks later we made the long journey down to Herefordshire and as we approached the house, built in the grounds of the original mansion, Mum began to recognise landmarks.
“That was the view from the dining room,” she said. “I remember the children’s donkey trying to barge through the French windows.”
Henry and his wife greeted us so warmly I was continually on the verge of tears. His sister, Sally, was away and unable to join us; she too had been amazed to read my letter. They gave us tea, a special cake baked in Mum’s honour, and attended to her as though she were visiting royalty. They even took us to the kitchen to see their granite worktops, without which we would never have met.
“Well, Nanny,” Henry said, kissing mum’s cheek. “We mustn’t leave it another sixty years before we meet again.” He insisted that we make this an annual event. We took a photograph of Mum and Henry together; I wanted her to have a constant reminder of a wonderful day.
Only two months later my mum passed away. Time and again I thanked goodness that we had been able to give her that unforgettable visit, and fill her last weeks with joyous recollection. I telephoned Henry to give him the news and was touched by the depth of his sadness. He and his wife sent flowers and a letter expressing their sorrow, but also their pleasure at having met “Nanny” after all those years.
I still wonder at the bizarre coincidence that brought about the visit to Herefordshire – the man with the accent I couldn’t recognise, the granite that we had both selected for our kitchens. I look at the photograph of Mum sitting beside Henry, her smile as wide and excited as a girl of fifteen, and it makes me realise that the past is not really gone at all – it is simply waiting in the wings, ready to leap back into centre stage.