Andrew Vine: Wolds war memorial that lives on today

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THE trees crown the crest of the Wolds, stretching away to the horizon, a windbreak against the storms that come in from the North Sea and a haven for wildlife.

This summer of remembrance, countless thousands will drive past the copses dotted across the landscape close to Bridlington, perhaps thinking how timeless and tranquil the hills with their little woodlands seem.

Yet the shadow of the Great War lies across this part of the Wolds, along the coast road to Scarborough, for the trees are a personal memorial to the fallen from a veteran of the war to end all wars, each one planted with a thought for somebody who never came back.

They are, quite possibly, Yorkshire’s least-known war memorial because the man who planted them never spoke much of his quiet tribute, maybe not even to the landowners who commissioned him to create copses to provide cover for game and some protection for crops.

But then he never spoke much about what he had seen whilst serving on the Somme, even though his conversation and daily routine were eloquent of how the war had marked him.

What he witnessed was central to his life. The savagery of the Western Front shattered some men’s faith, but not his, which was reinforced by his survival. He was convinced, and adamant, that God had brought him through for a purpose, and a quiet firmness to live a Christian life was the result.

His name was Joseph Turner, and I’ve thought of him often this summer as the centenary of the beginning of the First World War has been commemorated, because I came to know him well over the course of 18 months when I rented the top floor of his house in Bridlington.

Our commemorations of 1914 are as sincere as we can make them, but I recall the pang of sadness on hearing that Mr Turner had died, getting on for 30 years ago now, not only because I mourned a kind, open-hearted man who had become a friend, but because there was still so much to ask him.

A gulf in our understanding and appreciation of the generation that fought the war opened as it faded away. Its outlook, attitudes and the way it lived made the faces in the grainy photographs from the trenches come to life and gave precious insights into not just the horrors and discomforts, but the absurdities and even tedium that went with them.

The war reared its head when we first met and he asked my age. “Nineteen,” I replied. He looked thoughtful. “Same age I was at the Somme.” He liked young people, and we struck up a rapport straight away.

He was then in his mid-80s, a retired horticulturalist, long a widower, and growing frail. It suited him to have somebody around, so that help was at hand if he was taken ill. In return, the rent was low, and life at number 24 settled into an amicable routine.

Mr Turner refused to talk about combat, nor would he say whether he fought on the Somme during the epically bloody first day, July 1, 1916, or in the months that followed. Whatever had transpired was firmly locked away and never to be spoken of.

What quickly emerged was that war had made him a determined pacifist. His campaign medals were kept in a drawer, regarded as emblems of the futility of fighting. The sabre-rattling of the Cold War, then going through one of its most dangerous phases, infuriated him.

He returned again and again to the subject of how faith had sustained him, and promised himself that when – or if – he came home it would be at the heart of his life from then on. He was as good as his word, being instrumental in founding a nonconformist chapel in Bridlington.

Clues were everywhere about how deeply ingrained Mr Turner’s experiences remained, even 60-plus years later. I’ve never known anyone who could cut a loaf of bread so thinly, and watched amazed as he produced perfect quarter-inch slices, a legacy of making the ration go as far as possible.

The sight of a tin of corned beef in my shopping bag made him shudder, as that staple of the trenches had left him with a lifelong aversion to it. Another staple, though, jam and bread, was a different matter.

Tinned plum-and-apple jam manufactured by a company called Ticklers, of Grimsby, had been fed to the men by the ton. Many loathed it, but Mr Turner had been rather fond of it and regretted that Ticklers had gone out of business years before as well as that plum-and-apple was hard to come by if not home-made.

After his faith, perhaps the most enduring legacy was his refusal to be downcast. Mr Turner was full of laughter and jokes, a puckish wit with a total recall of music hall routines and songs of the period which he and his comrades would swap back and forth to keep their spirits up.

We kept in touch after I moved on, and I visited whenever possible. It was at about the time of the 70th anniversary of 1914 that I found him uncharacteristically quiet.

Such a milestone weighed on him. That’s when he told me about the trees, of how, at about the time that the Cenotaph was new and the Royal British Legion was being founded, in the early 1920s, he had embarked on planting hundreds upon hundreds of saplings.

It was hard work, and the digging took him back to the trenches. He began to think of the men who had fallen, and for every sapling he put in, thought of somebody who never came back, even if he hadn’t known their name.

Mr Turner watched those trees grow for the rest of his long life. The summer after he died, I turned off the main road and headed for the trees, where I found a footpath leading through them.

The copses were full of birdsong, the trees healthy and strong. They continue to thrive, a tribute not only to the fallen but to the gracious man who planted them, in whose heart the horrors of the Great War produced only gentleness and a determination to do good.

Mr Turner’s quiet, undemonstrative wish that something living and growing came out of the suffering and loss endures. He would have liked that.