“Lest we forget,” the chorus says. But if there’s no substance for the memory, what then?
I am gazing at a star. It’s a 1914-15 Star, one of an estimated 2.4 million awarded to all who served in any theatre of war outside the UK between August 1914 and December 1915. The reverse is engraved with a number, followed by PTE. J. and the paternal surname, followed by A. O. C. Who was this J, who served as a Private in the Army Ordnance Corps?
An online search takes us to the National Archives, and the number is the clue. We now have a regiment, another number, a filling for the J, and the option of paying £3.45 to view his medal index card. Who is this J? Census records, 1901: J is my father’s uncle, my father’s father’s brother, my great-uncle, born in Burton-on-Trent, 1894.
I remember our trips to Burton-on-Trent. Sunday picnics, walks by the river, the churchyard, my father searching for relatives, who might have been dead. But I don’t remember this great-uncle, aged 20 in 1914. When did he join? Where did he serve? What did he see? What horrors? What noise? And did he ever tell my father?
Somewhere down the line, there’s a blockage. I don’t remember meeting any of these relatives and my father, reticent at the best of times, didn’t tell us what J could tell us. What would he want to tell us? Did he prefer silence?
We can’t ask the old ones; silenced forever, so we shall never know. All we have is a medal, “lest we forget.” And memories of Sundays, the river, the churchyard, and my father searching for relatives, who might have been dead.