Monday, August 04, 2014

The Story of Horace Heath

Horace Heath was my grandma's first husband. He's not my grandfather, as he died on 24th March 1918, serving on the Western Front. I understand Horace was a baker in Nottingham, and he initially served in the Army Service Corps. By the time he died, however, he was in the Royal Irish Rifles. caught up in the German counter-offensive of 1918, which commenced on 21 March, often known as the Second Battle of the Somme.

He is remembered at the Pozières memorial and cemetery, which commemorates the casualties from that battle. You can view the Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry for Horace online here, which gives his parents' names and address and also my grandma's name and her address at the time. The houses aren't there anymore. Ireton Cottages are gone with all the older housing there, although Ireton Street still exists, and Sherwin Walk is close to where Sherwin Street used to be (just off Huntingdon Street).

No-one from my family had ever been out to the cemetery until I visited in the summer of 1989. I camped near the Thiepval memorial to the 1916 Somme casualties, and then set about trying to find Horace (with no internet, of course). I had a regiment and a date of death to go on, but needed more information.

One location recommended to me was Deville Wood (known as Devils Wood to the soldiers) where South African troops were engaged in a bloody battle for control. Here the forest had regrown, but the undulation of the ground clearly showed the trench lines decades later. There was also an English-speaking visitors centre where I was directed to the memorial I was looking for. I felt a twinge of discomfort at seeing the (then) new museum had been opened by P.W. Botha - one of the last leaders of South Africa under apartheid. However, the memorial there commemorates some 10,000 South African casualties from the Great War.

Pozières is a large cemetery, surrounded by walls with plaques commemorating many more casualties than the graveyard contains. It's on the road from Albert to Bapaume. Horace isn't remembered on a gravestone, but on one of the wall plaques. It was a very strange and memorable experience to visit, read the entry with my grandma's name in it, and know I was the first from the family to have made the journey. I also remember a vivid weird feeling when it occurred to me that if he hadn't died, I wouldn't exist. Grandma married again (another blog post worth there!) and my dad was the youngest child from that second marriage.

Horace's two children ( my dad's half brother and sister) were still alive in the summer of '89, although Auntie Doll died only 3 months later. They had last seen their father as small children, waving him off at the railway station. It was very special to take them photographs of the plaque and the entry in the book of remembrance. They were, of course, overwhelmed and showed me some of the embroidered postcards he sent back, along with his medals and the little bits of information they had about him.

Out there are millions of stories like this, remembered in fading photos and little boxes of memorabilia. Perhaps it's through those that we get closest to the people who lived and died in the reality of the trenches.

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