Malcolm Barker: Remembering Aunt Jinny’s Jack who never came back

THE First World War casts a long shadow. We felt its chill last month when my wife was given her Aunt Jinny Swift’s autograph album, which began in 1913 with girlish entries, and ended in 1918 when newspaper cuttings recorded the death in action of Gunner John William Newton of the Royal Horse Artillery. He had joined up in Hull in 1915, and had already been twice wounded.

War graves

This was Aunt Jinny’s Jack, the fiancé who never came back from the French battlefields. In a sense Aunt Jinny’s life then became as empty as the subsequent pages of her autograph book, for she never married, and died in her fifties.

No doubt a similar story lies behind the names of the young men carved on our war memorials. They should be much in mind next year, for the centenary of the entry of Britain and her Empire into the Great War falls on August 4, 2014.

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It will not be an occasion for celebration. The cheers and jubilation occasioned by the declaration of war soon died away, and the conflict is now commemorated by a succession of place-names associated with unrelieved grief and wastage of young lives. The Somme, Ypres, Gallipoli, Jutland: the list seems endless.

It had all begun amid wild enthusiasm. Some said it would be over by Christmas, an idea not shared by Lord Kitchener, newly appointed Secretary for War, who set about recruiting a citizen-army of volunteers, “K’s Army” or “The First Hundred Thousand”, the best and brightest in the land. They included the Pals’ battalions, who cheerfully went to war and fell within minutes on the first day of the Somme.

In England during that sunny August, war was regarded as something to be endured by foreigners. The last threat of invasion had been extinguished by Wellington at Waterloo. There had not been a battle on English soil since Sedgemoor, more then two centuries in the past. Our island had a navy to guard it against “infection and the hand of war”.

The twin beliefs in the land’s immunity from hostilities and the Navy’s invincibility on the high seas were breached early on the Yorkshire coast. Naval reservists from Hull, Middlesbrough and the fishing harbours between these major ports were immediately called to the colours. Many of these men joined the crews of three elderly four-funnel cruisers, Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy, on patrol in an area of the North Sea called the Broad Fourteens. With them were 28 cadets plucked from their studies at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth.

On September 22, 1914, all three cruisers were sunk by a U-boat in an action lasting only 75 minutes, with the loss of 1,459 sailors, including 13 of the cadets. One of these lads, Midshipman Duncan Stubbs, aged 15, is commemorated by a brass tablet in St Cuthbert’s, Ormesby, Middlesbrough.

Then, on December 16, a German raiding force led by four battle-cruisers emerged from the morning mist to wreak havoc with their guns at Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool. Derfflinger and Von der Tann attacked Scarborough, killing 18 people, including eight women, a 14-month-old baby boy and a Boy Scout, George Taylor, 15, then moved on to Whitby, killing two men and injuring another Boy Scout called Roy Miller, who was on duty at the Coastguard Station. He needed a leg amputating and thus became the first Boy Scout to suffer for his country while on duty during the war.

Hartlepool suffered more severely, with German warships pounding the town for an hour, pouring in 1,150 shells that killed 102 and wounded 467. Among the dead was the first British soldier to be killed on English soil in the Great War, Pte Theophilus Jones of the 18th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, a Pals’ Battalion.

Thus the Germans demonstrated that war did not just happen abroad, and proved that the Royal Navy did not rule all the waves all the time. It was a brutal shock, arousing much outrage, but calming voices were to be heard. The Whitby Coroner, George Buchannan, said at the inquest on the town’s two victims that people now lived in “very strange times”. He continued: “These are days of excitement that call for quiet, steadfast courage, and those of us who cannot serve our King in arms will do best by going about our ordinary work in our ordinary way, with as little excitement and heroics as possible.”

These wise words could now be applied to the centenary. Those of us born and brought up between the wars will remember Remembrance Days as solemn occasions, with sad men and women sombre in black, and only medal ribbons providing a flash of colour. Their memories of the war were unspeakable and went unspoken. We lived among damaged people, the shell-shocked, the maimed in body and mind, the blind. I remember a schoolteacher, a much-decorated ex-soldier, who went to the classroom floor if some unthinking boy banged a desk lid.

Among the commemorative activities proposed is the recording of traces of the war in the landscape of the British Isles, such as airstrips, fortifications, munitions factories like Thorp Arch, near Leeds, and concrete sound-mirrors designed to collect the noise of approaching enemy aircraft. One of these is on Boulby Cliff, and was intended to give early warning of any possible air attack on works at Skinningrove where 2.5 million tons of TNT for filling shells was produced in 1914-18.

Another scheme is to detect and mark the location of wrecks of submarines that litter the floor of the North Sea. Neither of these ideas offers great appeal. They seem like the kind of schemes put up by academics anxious to get their share of any taxpayers’ money (or government borrowings) available in connection with the Great War’s centenary. Plans to send two pupils from every state school have also been unveiled.

A far more sensible idea is the cleaning and refurbishment of the many war memorials scattered throughout the land, including that important symbol, the Cenotaph in London. The War Memorials Trust has reported a 40 per cent increase in inquiries about grants, and its director, Frances Moreton, says it encourages people to get in touch and discuss projects.

Perhaps it would be best to put off any ceremonial until the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 2018, the 100th anniversary of the end to the fighting. The nation could then gather in solemn commemoration of a victory greeted at the time with a kind of brittle euphoria, the pealing of bells, and, in the homes of the bereaved, the shedding of tears.

It will be a time for remembering, and we shall recall Aunt Jinny’s Jack, the Hull Co-operative Society shoemaker who was killed only a couple of months before the Armistice.

We will remember him, and poor bereft Aunt Jinny. All will be remembered.