The header photo is nearly all that remains of a young life. There are a few letters and army forms, but they don’t photograph well. It had barely got going when he volunteered for the army and it wasn’t destined to last long. He went to France in August 1915 and, as far as I can tell, spent the next 26 months there. He wrote a letter to his mother in August 1917. It’s not very interesting, these things seldom are after the passage of 100 years. It’s a letter from a son not wanting to mention anything that would get him censored or upset his mother. It ends with him saying that he is hoping to get home soon because of his toes. It didn’t quite work out like that.
People have often asked me over the years if it concerns me that I’m selling the remains of people’s lives. They often add that it’s a shame they can’t be left with the family or given to a museum.
In reverse order – don’t give anything to a museum. Unless you have something of national importance it will be dropped into a box or a drawer and never seen again. This isn’t idle speculation, I know of many cases where it has been done. Museums are generally good, and should be encouraged, but they don’t need more stuff.
Left with the family? I know of one case where the recipient wasn’t even cold before the family had his medals down to the local antique shop. And where do people think the medals all come from? The family sells them. Sometimes recipients sell medals – they don’t necessarily represent the same thing to the recipient that they do to a collector. We bought these off the family. However, when you think about it, you would have to be over 106 to have known this man. When families sell us medals they are often two or three generations away and sometimes don’t even know where in the family the medals have come from.
And three, no, I don’t have a problem with it. I have given L/Cpl Louis Thornley a good write-up on eBay and have done something the army couldn’t do for him – I’ve spelt his name correctly. The army had him as Lewis Thornbey on their medal index cards, and they named his medals incorrectly. This is an echo of what happened to my great-grandfather – not only did they name his medals incorrectly but when they sent his widow the (correctly) named memorial scroll they spelt her name wrong on the address label.
On top of that, I have taken his documents and medals out of a tin where they have clearly been for many years and I have brought his story into the open. They will go to a collector who will value them for the sacrifice that Louis Thornley made, and who will bring his story back to life.
It’s something I’m able to do regularly at work, after family members have forgotten all about them. It’s not their fault, it’s just that time passes and life moves on. It’s a privilege to be able to ensure that people aren’t forgotten.
On 12th October 1917 Louis Thornley, who had been with his unit through six major actions, lined up in the driving rain and muddy terrain on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele.
It’s a battle that has become synonymous with the mud and slaughter picture of the Great War, and when it was finished the Allies had lost over 300,000 men, 42,000 of them have no known grave. Louis Thornley, who is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial, is one of them.
Two week’s later, Mr and Mrs Thornley received an Army Form B 104, telling them that their son had been killed in action on the 12th. According to the Derby Evening Telegraph in January 1940, when they were celebrating their 50th Wedding Anniversary, they had four sons who served in the war, the other three surviving.