war memorial at dusk, photographed by Michelle Cooper



The Blythe Family

TEARS IN MY EYES" by Anne Walsh

Blythe family, courtesy Anne WalshAs the people of Norfolk pay their respects on Remembrance Sunday to those armed troops who gave their lives for us, journalist Anne Walsh reflects on what the two minutes' silence means to her.

This week we witnessed the sombre and moving sight of Prince Harry opening the first remembrance field dedicated to troops killed in the Afghanistan conflict.  

The sight of him planting a cross in memory of his friend, Lance Corporal of Horse Jonathan Woodgate, who was killed in March aged just 26, brought tears to my eyes. But those tears were not just for the families of the 342 men and women whose lives have been cut short since the conflict began in 2001. They are for another young man who died soon after his 27th birthday in a French field far away - my grandfather William Blythe.

A sergeant in the 8th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment), William was killed in action on the Somme on July 7, 1916, having been dispatched to France the previous December. One can scarcely imagine the horrors the troops endured as they walked straight into German fire, day after day until the fields became a bloody quagmire. In some ways I am thankful that he only endured seven days of the hell that raged for five more months.  "Men led by donkeys," was my father's description of the slaughter resulting from General Haig's dubious tactics.

Sgt William Blythe was awarded the Military Medal for bravery in the field. A huge honour but comfort to my grandmother Susan, who was left to care for their three sons, Archibald, aged four, Albert James, three, and Reginald Peter (my father), aged just one. Added to this she was pregnant with my aunt Josephine. My dad never knew his father. His two older brothers only had very sketchy memories of him.

The house in Ethelbert Road, Dover, Kent, where this family grew up, still stands My grandmother, a widow at 26, brought up four lively children there single-handed. There was no welfare state back then, so they grew up in poverty by today's standards but my dad, Reg, was proud to say that, unlike some of the other kids, they always had shoes to wear.

Susan, whose heart was broken by her husband's death, was to have it broken once more when my dad, aged just 14, defied her strict orders not to join the British Army. He went behind her back and enlisted with the Second Battalion of the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment - or the Beds and Tarts as he used to refer to them.

More tragedy was to follow. While on active duty in Palestine during the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-39, Drummer R P Blythe was wounded by an Arab grenade. He lost his kneecap and his right leg was damaged to the extent that it caused him pain for the rest of his life, which he endured with scarcely a complaint. Sadder still was the fact that it ended his boxing career. Weighing in as a heavyweight, he was a force to be reckoned with in the army, collecting enough trophies and medals to fill a large glass cabinet.  In 1939, he was discharged, and spent the second world war in the Home Guard on his beloved Kent coast. No wonder he loved and laughed at Dad's Army so much.

There is a further twist to this story. William's youngest brother, my dad's Uncle Reginald - after whom he was named - enlisted as a private with the 4th Royal Fusiliers. He was killed in action in Flanders on September 14, 1914, less than two months after war was declared. He was just 21 - the same age as my son.

Many readers will have been watching Julian Fellowes' TV drama Downton Abbey. It encapsulates that brief period known as the Edwardian era when the country was going through exciting changes: the arrival of the automobile, the telephone, the increased politicisation of the lower classes. My grandfather and his brother were young Edwardians. Who knows what they could have achieved had they not lost their lives in that "War to end all wars".

My grandfather William's body was never found. His name is engraved on the Thiepval memorial, France. Likewise, my great uncle Reginald is commemorated on La Ferte Sous Jouarre memorial, also in France.

Next year it will be the 90th anniversary of the first Poppy Day. I, like millions of others, will continue to wear my poppy with pride, and never forget those who have given their lives for us in the many fields of conflict.

As the poet John McCrae so eloquently states
"If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
 In Flanders fields."

This article was fist published in the Eastern Daily Press, Norfolk, 13 November 2010
reproduced with permission

Picture: Susan Blythe, née Redmond with her children: Reginald on her knee, with Archie on the right and Jimmy (Albert James) on the left. Josephine (Joan) was expected. ,

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