Tag Archives: commemoration

Post 3,000, and I Love my Job

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.

Medals and Plaque – Great War

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.

Louis Thornley’s Plaque and Scroll

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.

Poppies in wheat field

Paths of Glory

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
         And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
         The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Today I not only use Grey’s Elegy for a title, but Kubrick’s film. Eliot said Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal, and Quercus says If you’re going to steal, steal big.


Behind Southwell MInster in the Nottinghamshire town of Southwell, there’s an ivy covered wall, and on that wall there’s a mouldering wooden cross. The metal plate on it says:

‘In memory of Major J P Becher DSO (1/8th Sherwood Foresters) who died on 1.1.16 from wounds received in the attack on the Hohenzollern redoubt 16.10.15. Sans Peur. Sans Reproche.’

It is an original wooden grave marker as used on military graves just after the Great War, There were many styles of cross as they were often put up by comrades of the dead men and they made them out of whatever was available. When they were replaced by the neat white markers that we now find so familiar, the families were given the chance of having the wooden ones sent home. Many of the ones that were returned were put in local churches, but Major Becher’s family put his up outside. So far it has lasted 100 years, but every time I go to look at it, I worry that it will have disintegrated.

Becher’s grave marker

This isn’t the place to go into the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but the logistical effort of returning the markers, at a time when they were still recovering bodies by the thousand, must have been tremendous.  There were, according to this article, 10,000 crosses sent back to families so they could have something tangible to link families to the graves of their loved ones.

Though they didn’t realise it, they were the lucky ones. It haunted my grandmother all her life that her father had no known grave. He is listed on the Thiepval Memorial, but it isn’t the same as having a grave, even if the family never visited it.

That’s the Thiepval memorial. There are over 72,000 names on it – 72,000 people who have no known grave.

To be honest, I was amazed by the number of markers that were returned.  It’s a small number compared to the total of the losses but it was still a huge logistical effort, particularly for a government that is usually portrayed as callous and unfeeling.

This is John Pickard Becher DSO.

There’s no reason why you should have heard of him. He was a country solicitor from Southwell. I assume he pursued the life of an English provincial gentleman in the years before 1914. His name is mentioned numerous times in the period before the war, though always in connection with legal matters, and with no personal stories attached. The only non-legal matter I can find is his entry into the volunteers in 1906 when, on November 1st 1906 ” John Pickard Becher, Gentleman,” was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 4th (Nottinghamshire) Volunteer Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire) regiment. The Volunteers were the ancestors of the Territorial Army, which was formed in 1908. Becher’s battalion became the 8th battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, based in Newark

Nothing is heard of him from 1912 to 1915. He was obviously embodied with the battalion in 1914 and went overseas with them in February 1915. The battalion was quickly in action and in April 1915 he performed the first of several acts of gallantry that would lead to the award of the Distinguished Service Order, one step down from the Victoria Cross.

This was his citation, published in the London Gazette.

‘Conspicuous gallantry and good service on several occasions. On April 4th 1915 at Kemmel when part of his trench was blown in under heavy fire he personally assisted in repairing the parapet and digging out buried men. On June 15th at Kemmel when part of his trench was blown in by mines, shells and trench mortars, he displayed great gallantry and coolness in reorganising the defences. On July 30th and subsequent days at Ypres he displayed great coolness, cheerfulness and resource under trying circumstances when in temporary command of his battalion.’

Of course, it didn’t last long.  On 15th October 1915, the British attacked the Hohenzollern Redoubt as a follow up to the Battle of Loos. Pickard was seriously wounded and lay out in No Man’s Land for 48 hours. He died nearly three months later of blood poisoning.  These were the days before antibiotics.

Both his brothers in law, Everard, and Basil were also killed in the attack. Neither of them has a known grave and they are both commemorated on the Loos Memorial.

They are quite well commemorated around Nottinghamshire as we are lucky in having a number of volunteers who have helped build an on-line Roll of Honour.

Some of you will have noticed the poppy on Becher’s cross. That’s in memory of  Squadron Leader John Henry Becher RAF, who was killed in a plane crash in 1940. He was the son of J P Becher and his wife Gertrude who, with a husband, son and two brothers, really had more tragedy in her life than anyone should be expected to bear.

I noted, when researching this post, that he is commemorated in the Minster – I’ve visited several times but never knew about this.

Another generation






A Hundred Years Ago…

Sorry, this is a bit of a downbeat post, but it relates to events 100 years ago today, and it seems appropriate. This is from the Clitheroe Advertiser on 21st December 1917.

Obituary notice - Wm H Wilson

Obituary notice – W H Wilson

It’s not quite accurate, as he’d originally volunteered in 1914 but been turned down (my grandfather went with him to volunteer that day but claimed to be less than nine months younger than him – this was hailed as a medical miracle by the recruiting sergeant, who also rejected my grandfather.) The fact that he wasn’t called up until  a year after conscription could indicate that he was needed on the farm as part of the war effort, but there is no indication on his card.

He joined the battalion in July 1917 and was wounded in action on 22nd October, a slight gunshot wound to the head according to his medical records. Slight? They were obviously tougher in those days.

He rejoined the battalion on 5th December, and was, as reported in the paper, fatally wounded whilst in trenches in the Ypres salient on 12th December.

He is buried in Lijsssenthoek Militart Cemetery and is unusual amongst the three members of the family killed in the war in having a marked grave.


This is the lisy of personal effects sent home to his mother – photos, wallet, cigarette case, cards, 2 cap badges, 2 numerals (probably shoulder titles), 9 carat gold ring (WHW), 1 farthing, bag.. They would later send a tin case containing a safety razor and blades. Shaving was a complicated subject in the trenches.

WHW Effects

He was, according to one of my great-grandmother’s letters, walking out with a local woman, before being sent to France. At that point he had only five months to live and was to be wounded twice and mentioned in despatches in that time.


The war memorial in Slaidburn (currently being restored) features his name, as does my great-grandmother’s gravestone (which also mentions my great-grandfather). If you compared the war memorial  figures at Clitheroe and Slaidburn you will see that they are the same, something I learned whilst pteparing the previous post on Clitheroe. She never recovered from Billy’s death (he was Billy to the family – William to record-keepers) and threw out anything that reminded her of the war. That, we are told, is why there is no existing photo of him.

Great-grandmother is buried in Chatburn, the village where my mother was bombed, and where I later went to school less than 100 yards from the gravestone, which I never knew about until a few years ago.

This closes the circle as her son-in-law is commemorated on Chatburn war memorial – something else I never knew when I went to Chatburn school – the school is the building in the background of this photograph.



Paths of Glory

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
         And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
         The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
I’ve just finished reading The Final Whistle: The Great War in Fifteen Players . I bought it last week when I was supposedly getting rid of some books at the Oxfam shop. It is, as you may be able to guess from the title, a book about the Great War and rugby. I’m not one of those people who can quote details of Divisions and battles and all that stuff but I do have an interest in the subject, and I also like rugby.
As a result, I am now motivated to finish a post I began after visiting Southwell Minster. For me, the most interesting part of the visit is the original wooden grave marker of Major J P Becher. It’s on the wall of the graveyard at the east end of the Minster, and I always worry that one day it will disintegrate.

Original wooden grave marker at Southwell Minster

In this case, Major Becher is commemorated in many other places, as are his brothers-in-law. The brothers-in-law were both killed on the day that Becher suffered his fatal wounds. He lived on for another ten weeks before finally dying, having been too badly injured to be sent home from France.

Grave marker – Major J P Becher

His son, as seen from the small cross in the picture, died in the Second World War.

Father and son

Families were allowed to have the original wooden grave markers returned to them when the permanent stone markers were erected, though I’m not sure how many actually applied for them. I imagine that although it represented closure for many families, it was far too painful for others.
One of my great grandmothers, having lost a son and a son-in-law and seen two other sons seriously injured, refused to even to discuss the war. Another one, having been widowed and left with three young daughters, died in the TB hospital in Lancaster five years after the death of her husband.
It was International Women’s Day yesterday, so it might be appropriate to spend a moment thinking about the women in this story, who also suffered in the war, though nobody erected a memorial to them.
The above link to my great grandmother’s headstone was a complete surprise to me. I was going to add CWGC details but browsed a few others and found that. Though I’ve been in that church and graveyard several times in the past I never thought to look for family gravestones at the time and it was on the list of “things to do”.
That’s the wonder of the web, and a whole new post.