When we think about remembrance and The Great War, our thoughts naturally turn to the men who rest in the Silent Cities of the Old Front Line. And of course so they should, but it is also important that we think about the wider impact of the conflict and those men who I feel are all too often forgotten… the men who survived the battles that the official history records, but came home to fight their own.
The men who returned home with visible wounds – who had to learn to accept life without their legs or with horrendous facial disfigurement. Unable to work and looked at no longer with smiling faces and cheers for ‘our boys in khaki’ but instead with pity and quiet whispers. Or the men who had no physical wounds but carried deep mental anguish, a private, unrelenting pain that those at home could never understand. The men who could never find respite from these horrors, and took their own lives or turned to the bottle, ending their lives destitute on the streets of our cities. Or even the men who returned home, only to die here as a result of giving their all in battle. These are truly the forgotten men of The Great War and their shadows can be felt all around us at home.
This weekend I visited the local church in Ticehurst, for a bit of soul searching and to visit some CWGC graves that I had not yet had the chance to. Here I came across the grave of Gunner George Blendell.
George had 12 years pre-war service but was recalled by the Royal Marines in 1914 where he joined HMS Tiger – the most heavily armoured battlecruiser of the Royal Navy at the time. In early 1915 Tiger took part in the Battle of Dogger Bank – the British surprise interception of a German raiding mission. It was shortly after this that Gunner Blendell fell ill. He was returned home from hospital in September 1915. George was suffering from cordite poisoning as a result of his long service as a naval gunner. It is the same thing that affected 1000’s of women who worked in the munitions factories – the ‘canary girls’, exposed to the toxic material used in shells. He was to spend a final 8 months with his wife Minnie and their two children before finally succumbing to his illness on 9th June 1916 and laid to rest in the local cemetery.
In churchyards up and down the country you will find the white Portland stone headstones of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, looked after here, as they are out on the Old Front Line. Most churches have one or two, sitting quietly among often ageing civilian graves. A closer look on these too, will show you many private memorials to those lost in the war. A comfort perhaps that the families of these men had a grave they could visit and the knowledge that their loved ones were home. It is important we continue to remember them now, as all too often they are forgotten. As ever, The Great War is all around us, look at you will see the shadows of its impact, one we must never forget.