October 30 2014 Latest news:
Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Malcolm Ebbs wasn’t thinking particularly about The Great War when he began a Who Do You Think You Are-style quest – it was more about the family he never knew – but he did learn about the mysterious soldiers on his dad’s wall. Steven Russell reports on an emotional journey
It began five or six years ago. Maybe more. “We were talking to my grandchildren and I said ‘I never knew a grandfather or grandmother,’” remembers Malcolm Ebbs. “My daughter said ‘We ought to do something about that.’”
They did. Suzanne is, says her dad, a whizzkid on the computer. Within a few weeks she and Malcolm had pieced together quite a lot about his ancestry.
“Then my wife had a heart attack and it all stopped for a while. I’ve picked it up again. My daughter does a bit every now and again, but she’s quite busy. I’ve now got a laptop and I can work it, so I’m gradually working backwards!” he smiles, sitting amid a sea of photocopied forms and photographs.
A childhood with more than its share of tragedy means it’s harder for Malcolm to part the mists of time than it is for many people.
His father James, born in 1897, served in the First World War after volunteering. A motor mechanic, he became a driver in the Royal Field Artillery and earned three medals.
After the war – and how about this for a triumph of love over international distrust? – he married German lady Helen Siebal.
They came to England and had two daughters, in 1926 and 1927, but Helen died after giving birth to a son in 1931. It was hard for James to cope as a single parent with two girls and a baby, so it appears the decision was taken for the little boy to go to live in Germany with his maternal grandparents.
In 1933 James married for a second time – to Elizabeth – and had more children, including Malcolm. Sadly, the lad lost his mother when he was eight. His father died about seven years later – two days before Malcolm started work. For the teenager, then, there was no mum or dad to tell him about the past.
The legacy of this absence has become clear during 2014, as we mark the start of the world war 100 years ago.
Malcolm’s research had told him a little about two uncles – his father’s brothers – who pulled on uniforms and went to fight on the Western Front. Until about 15 or 20 years ago, he simply hadn’t known about them.
“Where I lived with my father in Whitby Road (Ipswich) there were two huge framed pictures of soldiers on the wall. I never knew the importance of them until I started doing this, and now I can only assume it was those two brothers.
“Dad didn’t talk about them, and he was ill for the last four years of his life, and there was only me and him living there… He never spoke to me about the war at all.”
Those uncles were Henry and Francis (known as Frank), and in May Malcolm found out an awful lot more about them during an emotional trip with his daughter to the battlefields of The Great War.
He’d been telling people that his ambitions were to travel on the Eurotunnel shuttle and to find the graves of his uncles.
“My daughter and my wife said ‘Well, that will be your 70th birthday present!’ I’m now 72, so it’s taken me about 23 months to get organised!”
He and Suzanne stayed at a hotel just outside Ypres. Their memories include the vast war cemetery at Loos and the battlefield at Vimy Ridge. They also saw where German and British troops interrupted hostilities to play football by the trenches of Ypres during Christmas, 1914. The location was marked by a cross, where visitors laid memorabilia in tribute.
“To my anguish, that cross had got a Norwich City scarf around it,” frowns the committed Ipswich Town fan. “It was pouring with rain and I couldn’t get over to it. If I had, I’d have pulled that scarf off!”
The best memories, though, involve walking in the footsteps of the courageous ancestors he never knew – the men who were, it seems, in those pictures on his father’s wall.
The travel package gave them the services of an expert for a couple of days – a military historian and archaeologist who had served in the modern British forces and was now living in Ypres.
It was an expensive option, but Malcolm’s glad they had their own personal guide. “I’ve no doubt we would have found the cemeteries, but we wouldn’t have known all the history or had all the extra information. It really made it.”
Private Henry Ebbs, born in 1894, served with the 1st Battalion, East Kent Regiment – nicknamed “The Buffs”, after a historic type of soft leather coat. He had enlisted at Lowestoft. The guide took Malcolm and his daughter to an area about 65 miles from Ypres where, 97 years ago, Henry and some of his comrades were killed by snipers. The soldier died on March 5, 1917.
Thanks to global positioning gadgetry, the guide was able to say “I can guarantee you that he was killed within 100 yards of this spot.” A poppy was growing near where they stood, so the visitors picked it with the idea of bringing it home as an apt memento.
During their earlier research, Malcolm and Suzanne had got some valuable help via The Buffs’ regimental association, from a man called Mick Mills. He’d explained how the 1st Battalion had taken over a section of trench from the Bedfordshire Regiment on March 2, 1917, and was losing two or three men every day to German snipers and machine-gun fire.
On the 5th, Henry had died – along with colleagues Charles Hickmott and Charles Fox. Eight other men were wounded.
“This gives you an idea of the horror of the trenches, as men are being killed and wounded just as a result of service in the front line without any offensive operations being carried out,” Mick told them.
The three dead men are buried next to each other at Maroc British Cemetery, at Grenay, northern France.
What was it like for Malcolm to stand where his uncle might well have stood? – almost hearing the echoes of those final moments.
He exhales, slowly. “Very strange. Very, very strange. It empties your heart out, really, when you see it. They did all that, for that… what have we done since? All those lives were wasted…”
Well, he says, you look at the landscape where those dreadful battles were fought. Flat for miles. The troops effectively lived underground. Apparently, he says, more soldiers were killed by drowning in the trenches than by sniper fire.
In the autumn of 1917, Henry’s brother Frank would also pay the ultimate price. He was just 21 years old.
The private, who had enlisted at Bury St Edmunds, had been part of the 10th Battalion, the Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment). He was attached to another battalion, nicknamed The Bantam Brigade, whose job it was to mine under the ground and place explosives. These were detonated when enemy troops passed above.
Frank was killed on September 15 and is buried at Woods Cemetery, about three miles from Ypres. A number of headstones stand together, there, as the remains of some of the dead men killed in a bomb-hole that day could not be separately identified. “They died together and were buried together,” says Malcolm.
What was it like to ponder Frank’s fate?
“Terrible. To see those names on the graves – 17-year-olds, 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds – it’s just terrible. And the number of cemeteries… you see them on the back roads everywhere. This is the shocking part – this map I’ve got here – hundreds and hundreds of cemeteries.”
The reminders are almost everywhere, on the Franco-Belgian border. Farmers still dig up First World War ordnance. There’s one who stands them up outside his barn, where they wait for the bomb disposal team to deal with them.
Phosphorous bombs that are found are often lodged in the lattice-work of lamp-posts, reports Malcolm. “We stopped at one and there were six stuck in this post!”
Meanwhile, some fields are striped by white lines. When the trenches were dug, up came the chalk beneath the soil. It’s still there, virtually a century on.
Back in Suffolk, a plaque in the little church at St James, South Elmham, north-west of Halesworth, honours eight people with local links who were killed in The Great War. Henry and Frank are among them.
Family life actually centred on Wenhaston, the other side of Halesworth, and Malcolm suspects times were tough early in the 20th Century. He’s got a copy of great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Thomas’s will, made in 1737, which talks about lands owned in the Peasenhall area, but little of this apparent wealth seems to have trickled down to his own grandparents, Edward and Emma Ebbs..
Edward was a farmer, labourer or manager, but Malcolm wouldn’t like to state that he owned the land on which he toiled.
It appears that two of the five boys were farmed out to live with relatives at some point – quite likely because the family had grown too large for Edward and Emma to support. The 1911 census, for instance, has James living with a relative at Great Yarmouth.
“It seems they were very hard times,” says Malcolm, who lives in Ipswich and had a career in the motor trade, starting “on the bench” and working up to running a major garage.
And then his grandparents, father and uncles were faced with a world war whose violence, duration and attrition could never have been imagined.
A fourth brother, George, also found himself in uniform. Malcolm doesn’t know much about that uncle’s life and is trying to uncover more detail. John, known as Jack, was the one brother too young for the army. He’d become a well-known electrician in the Halesworth area.
“My grandmother must have been heartbroken to lose two sons in barely six months, and knowing that she’d got dad out there, as well, and another son going in,” Malcolm reflects. “It must have been terrible for her.”