One family’s Great War tale of bravery and sacrifice

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Five of Hugh Neems’ uncles served their country in the First World War. Andrew Robinson reports on a story of sacrifice and survival against the odds.

AS a boy growing up in the late 1930s, Hugh Neems idolised his uncle Hughie. Almost 80 years on and Mr Neems, from Todmorden, in West Yorkshire, can recall the aeroplane tail fin which decorated his uncle’s staircase. “Of the five uncles, he was the one I knew best,” says Mr Neems, who has written a book about the wartime service of the five men, A Rough Ride.

“He was a lively, colourful character and a bit of a boyhood hero of mine. As a boy I would visit the family home in Worcester. I remember the bullet-marked tail fin of the plane that Uncle Hughie flew. The whole house contained wartime memorabilia.”

The amazing life of Hugh Lloyd is a central part of his newly-published book.

In 1914 Hugh Lloyd was a signaller and then worked as a despatch rider for the Royal Engineers for three years. He was twice wounded and awarded the Military Cross for bravery during a retreat.

He then swapped his motorbike for wings, learned to fly in late 1917 and served with 52 Squadron through much of 1918, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Part of the citation for the DFC stated: “...this officer’s valuable and gallant work and the accuracy of all his reports must undoubtedly be attributed to the energy and dash which characterised the whole of his conduct”.

Mr Neems is amazed that his uncle survived the war given the dangerous work of the Royal Flying Corps. “I think he lived a charmed life.”

Of the five uncles, just one lost his life in battle. Uncle Arthur Neems was killed by a German grenade near Arras on March 29 1918 – the same day that pilot Hugh Lloyd was in the air over Arras in his RE8, striving to stem the German advance.

Uncle Dai Lloyd was severely injured at Vimy Ridge and survived the war, only to die while serving as a pilot with the RAF in Afghanistan in 1926.

Uncle Hugh remained with the RAF after the war and was based in Malta during the bombardment of 1941, retiring in the 1950s with the rank of Air Chief Marshall. In his latter years he was fond of reminiscing about his time in France during the Great War.

“He would talk to me as if I was his navigator-rear gunner,” recalls Mr Neems, who is 86.

“He talked as if he was back in the First World War and would recreate the matey atmosphere of the Mess and their gallows humour. He was in a crack squadron and he was lucky to get through as so many were shot down. I was 52 when he died.”

The death of Uncle Arthur in the Battle of Arras took a terrible toll on his family.

“He was thought to be his mother’s favourite son and she died at the end of the war – it had a devastating effect on her.”

Mr Neems, who served with the Royal Navy during the final months of the Second World War, has spent the last 40 years of his life living in the Halifax area.

At his house in Todmorden, the bugle used by his Uncle Dai hangs on the wall of his living room alongside a photo of Uncle Arthur, who was killed in action, and a framed version of Wilfred Owen’s poem Anthem for Doomed Youth.

A century after the war began, Mr Neems believes it is worth reflecting on the conflict and the sacrifices of those who fought.

“The book is an uplifting story which restores hope in human resilience and self giving. In 1914, they thought in terms of the group and not all about ‘me’. The thinking was that you did things for others. That is something worth commemorating and celebrating.”

• A Rough Ride is published by Book Guild Publishing, priced £12.99. To order from The Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 01748 821122.