One family’s journey in memory of a soldier who never came home

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Ann Greenhough’s grandfather was killed in the First World War and a century on she and her family are making a pilgrimage to his grave in France. Chris Bond reports.

ANN Greenhough never knew her grandfather, Ernest Taylor. All she has is a fading old photograph and the letters he sent home during a war from which he never returned.

A painter by trade, Ernest came from Leeds and lived with his wife, Emma. By the time the First World War broke out in 1914 they had two children, Elsie and Tommy, Ann’s father. A third child had earlier died of diphtheria at the age of just five.

With the nation at war Ernest, like so many other young men, signed up. He joined the The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (West Riding) and was fighting in France when he was killed in 1916.

Ann, who lives in Calverley, near Leeds, remembers as a little girl being taken along with her sisters to the remembrance service at the Leeds Cenotaph. “She used to take us there every year because she wanted us to remember him. She had a big picture of him up on her bedroom wall and as little girls we would stay over with her and I remember that photo as clear as day.”

Her grandmother was just 25 when her husband was killed. “She never remarried, she was still very young but she just lived for her children and grandchildren and I don’t think she ever got over the loss.”

It’s almost a century since he was cut down, along with so many others, during the carnage that we call the Somme Offensive and in May, Ann, along with her two sisters Beryl Ore and Lauretta Tunnicliffe, and her cousin Jennifer Livesey, will travel to France to visit his grave at the war cemetery at Warloy-Baillon.

It’s the first time they will have been to his grave and are each taking one of their daughters on what will no doubt be an emotional trip. “We’ve talked about going over and visiting his grave as long as I can remember. But this year we’re doing it because it’s the 100th anniversary of the war starting, plus we’re in our 60s and 70s so if we don’t do it now we never will.”

Among their grandfather’s memorabilia the family also have a couple of letters written by a nurse at the hospital in France where he died. The first letter, written in English, is dated September 15, 1916.

It reads: “Dear Mrs Taylor, your husband Sergeant Taylor is in hospital here having been severely wounded in the abdomen. He is very ill and his condition is very serious. I do hope I will be able to give you better news in a day or so. He is receiving every care and he is such a splendid patient, so cheeky. He sends you his love and also love to the children. We are doing all we can for him, we will write again later.”

The nurse then sent a second, final, letter just over a week later with the heartbreaking news that her husband had died. “Dear Mrs Taylor, you will have received my letter telling you that your husband was in hospital having been severely wounded,” she wrote. “We hoped he would get better but he suddenly much worse yesterday and unfortunately he died at 10 o’clock, on the 23rd.

“I told him I had written telling you he was in hospital and that I would write again. He sent you all his fond love and asked me to tell you not to worry.”

She finished by saying: “He is to be buried in the village today and his name will always be carefully kept. If you care to send a wreath and a card for his grave I will put it on for you. All his belongings you will receive later, my deepest sympathy. He died peacefully and everything was done for him that could be.”

Both letters were signed by a woman called “Kathleen” with a surname that looks like it might be French. Ann and her family have no idea who the nurse was but would love to find out. “She’ll be dead now obviously, but it would really nice to meet her family and say ‘thank you’ because she’ll never what these letters meant to our grandma who treasured them all her life.”

As well as these letters the family still has those he himself wrote to his family. “They’re quite funny some of them,” says Ann. She picks out one dated February 20, 1916.

“Dear wife, just a line hoping to find you in good health as it leaves me nicely at present. I’ve sent you that silk off by registered post on the 18th and also sent a letter the same day. Well kid, I was surprised when I went to purchase it in town it cost me more than I thought it would. The cheapest kind obtainable was 1s and 6d a yard, that stuff I sent you was 2s and 6d a yard. I don’t know if I’ve sent enough to make Elsie a dress, but I hope it is enough.

“Well, I think I’ve told you all the news this time. Hoping for a letter from you soon, so I’ll close now with best love from your ever loving husband, Ernest. Kisses for bairns.”

Another letter is dated June 28 the same year. “Dear wife, just a line in answer to your last two letters and parcel, I received quite safe thanks very much. Sorry to hear about Thomas but I hope to see him shortly. I am writing this on board ship somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean so I cannot post it until I arrive at the other end.

“We won’t know exactly where we are going for a bit but I think it is France. I hope you will excuse me not writing before but we have been run off our feet.”

He continues: “Well kid, we don’t look like drawing any money yet so will you send me another parcel off as I have no cigs. Send the same as the last one as the woodbines they make now are not worth smoking.

“We have not heard as yet anything definite about leave but I think we shall get one, so if I can I will wire and let you know when I’m coming home. Well kid, I think I have told you all the news this time. Best love to you and bairns, from your ever loving husband.”

Ann recalls talking to her grandmother about him. “I remember her telling me that she pawned her wedding ring to pay for him to come home on leave because they had no money, and that when he found out he wasn’t best pleased,” she says. “She never really said much about how they lived their lives but it’s clear to us that they loved each other deeply.”

It was Ann’s father who traced his father’s grave while he was serving in France during the Second World War. “My father felt obliged to volunteer in the Second World War because of losing his own father. But when my grandmother found out she was very upset. She came to my mother’s house pleading with him not to do it because she’d lost a husband and she didn’t want to lose a son.”

Her father survived his war but for Ann and her family it’s another reason why they feel compelled to make this pilgrimage across The Channel.

“It will be quite emotional but we want to pay our respects and to thank my grandfather for the sacrifice that he and thousands of others made.”

It’s a sacrifice they want their children and grandchildren to appreciate. “Just the other day we sat down the two youngest, one’s 12 and the other’s 13, and we made them both read the letters. I said ‘you must read them so you understand what it’s all about.’

“Nobody wants wars but you do have to stand up and be counted and sometimes you have to fight to have peace.”