First World War: Delving into her family history and the part they played in the Great War, Josée O’Halloran has discovered that bravery is a trait that runs in the bloodline

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This is a story about strong women who looked adversity straight in the eye and of three brothers who fought to save their ancestral motherland. Steven Russell hears about an amazing family.

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Ellen Poulain was a mother with backbone. Plenty of it. When she learned one of her soldier sons had been hurt going “over the top” near Ypres – and was lying badly injured in a hospital bed across the Channel – she didn’t think twice.

“I’m going to see him,” she told her husband. “Ma Cherie,” reasoned Leon, “you can’t. There’s a war on.”

It wasn’t going to stop this strong woman, though, says her granddaughter, Josée O’Halloran, who lives near Ipswich. “She was the only woman on a boat filled with soldiers going out to France, and was with her son when he died…”

Harold René Poulain was a schoolmaster who had joined the Honourable Artillery Company. Josée says that on June 16, 1915 – a boiling-hot day – British troops launched an attack at Hooge. René was wounded in the action and died on July 22. The private was 28 and was buried at Calais Southern Cemetery.

Josie O'Halloran holds cross stitching that her father did while recovering from injury in WWI.

Josie O'Halloran holds cross stitching that her father did while recovering from injury in WWI. - Credit: Su Anderson

Two more of his five brothers also fought in The Great War. “It must have been terrible for my grandfather and grandmother, knowing their boys were out there and that many of the soldiers were being killed. Or perhaps they didn’t know how bad it was,” says Josée.

The story really begins a lot earlier, though – with another resourceful woman.

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Pauline Francoise Poulain, born in 1834, was René’s grand-mother. Her parents had died when she was young and she’d gone to a boarding school in Reims, north-east of Paris. Later she went to work for a marquis, who lived in a chateau.

Pauline married Léon, but moved to England with their son – Léon junior – to make ends meet after her husband died. It was probably after 1861.

Her lad, born in Paris in 1857, was sent to boarding school. “Of course, I looked (in vain) for every posh boarding school there was and then thought I’d put his second name in the internet, Georges, and he was in a Poor Law school in Middlesex run by the Brothers of Mercy,” explains Josée, who has put in the hours researching her ancestors. Pauline was her great-grandmother.

Léon Georges, then 14, and his mother made a visit to France in 1871. They took food parcels for the starving, following the siege of Paris by Prussian forces, and perhaps also visited Léon senior’s grave.

A passport for the journey gave Pauline’s address as Preston and she was said to be working as a lady’s maid. She also worked for the daughter of William Morris, the textile designer.

Léon Georges became a postman in the Strand at 16 and worked in that line for 44 years, rising from letter-carrier to clerk. He was a bit of a daredevil, it seems – wont to dive off London Bridge and swim to Westminster steps.

His mother, Pauline, would live to be 100 – dying in 1934.

Léon married Ellen and they had five boys and two girls. René was one son, Josée’s father Paul another. Paul was born in 1895 and grew up in the capital.

Like his brothers René and Montagu (“Mont”) Paul put on the uniform of the country that had taken in his grandmother and father and went to defend the country from which they had come several decades earlier.

His old wartime diaries record the events of 1916 – the year he became 21.

Paul was with the 31st Royal Fusiliers, going from Folkestone to Boulogne that August and being at Etaples by the 26th. There was quite a lot of waiting about as they prepared for what was to come. The young soldier grumbles about the instructors there, nicknamed canaries because of their yellow armbands and notoriously unsympathetic. (There was a mutiny by troops the following year, apparently!)

After Etaples came a journey in covered cattle trucks and then a long march. The soldiers stayed in houses and played the pianos! A lady lent them some English music, including Chopin. “Had a fine tea: eggs, chips, coffee, bread and butter – one franc,” Paul noted on Thursday, September 21.

The men then headed north and before long were in a trench and digging gunpits. Not much happened, though. A Roman Catholic, he went off to confession quite a lot. Then on Tuesday, October 10, at Vimy Ridge, the trenches were strafed and there was a “horrible explosion”. There’s mention in the diary of bomb craters.

Saturday, October 14, was Paul’s 21st birthday. The artillery strafed “Fritz”, who was only 30 to 100 yards away in places. The British troops didn’t enjoy that. Four chaps were buried. “Not much sleep these days.”

By November it was snowing on the Western Front. “Awful, wasn’t it,” sighs Josée. Food parcels were sent from home, but the men didn’t have many places to keep them, and the goodies had to be protected from the rats.

Life at the front was clearly nightmarish. Paul and his fellow men were often scared stiff at night, when they would blacken their faces and creep through woods to discover whatever intelligence they could, but all the time knowing there could be a German soldier lurking behind every tree.

Then came November 16, which he called The Day.

“About four o’clock in the afternoon, blacked our faces and hands with cork and got our bombs and bludgeons… Took off all badges so as not to be recognised if found by Fritz.”

Engineers laid out explosives in drainpipes, connected to an electrical battery. The troops crawled out at 6.30am and lay flat in the dark.

“All of a sudden our barrage started. Two batteries; 60lb trench mortars, machine-guns… terrific bang…

“We all got up and rushed, Hunt and I with machetes in case there was any small tripwire to get over. Fell over two or three times. Got to Fritz’ trench but the sentry spotted us and let fly. Hit one chap. Hunt. Lieutenant Tyfany fired at him.

“I knelt down and got ready with a bomb when something flashed on my right and I had eye banged up. I felt pretty warm all over. No pain, much.”

He had many pieces of exploded shell in his leg and above his left eye.

Paul started to crawl back and, after going 30 or 40 yards, encountered a lieutenant.

“We crawled in a shellhole as the artillery was lively. Took off my puttee. (A cloth covering over the leg.) He bound it (the wound) with a dressing.” Stretcher-bearers were out, looking for the wounded. They collected him.

After a four-hour journey through the trenches Paul arrived at Loos, and went by vehicle on to a dressing station. A doctor, “very cheery”, treated the injury and inoculated the soldier. “‘Oxo or brandy and milk?’ he asked me. Not Oxo. So had brandy and milk.”

Paul went on to a hospital and underwent surgery – followed by, he noted, a big dinner. He also noticed the nice nurses! He had a wound over his eye and the leg was also injured.

After four days in a hospital on the French coast he went by train to Calais, crossed the Channel, and was taken to a hospital or rehabilitation centre in Staffordshire, where he stayed quite a while. Good grub and more nice nurses, according to his diary.

Daughter Josée reckons her father did quite a lot of embroidery there, while he had time on his hands – dexterity something that ran in the family.

Paul got better but was not fit enough to return to the front. Instead, he joined the Labour Corps – something that brought him to Suffolk and found him a wife.

Josée says the work took her staff sergeant father around the county, where he was in charge of land girls and helped bring in the harvests. “He said the only thing he did was chase them round the haystacks!” she laughs.

While working in the Stowmarket area, Paul lodged with the family of senior Suffolk policeman Alfred Flory. He fell in love with Hilda Flory. They married after the war and had four boys and a girl.

The former soldier trained to be a charted accountant. He worked for a firm, then switched to look after the finances of Imperial College, London.

Domestic life was centred on east London. The extended Poulain family regularly got together for social outings like Christmas parties and outings to the pantomime.

Josée says her parents were invariably cheerful, despite losing one of their sons, and their home, during the Second World War.

They’d moved in 1944 and, five days later, a flying bomb fell in the front garden, demolishing the house. Anthony died; Paul and Hilda both suffered a broken arm.

In the 1960s the couple decided to move to Suffolk, to be near Hilda’s sister, who lived at Bentley. By luck they discovered a bungalow was for sale at Shotley Gate, looking out over Harwich Harbour. It was perfect – Paul wanted somewhere he could fish – and they moved in in 1961.

He played the organ at the Ganges naval chapel, grew tobacco and tended a vegetable garden.

Josée says her father didn’t much discuss his 1916 experiences. “He said that when they blackened their faces and went into the woods to spy it was very scary. But he didn’t really talk much about it. Not an awful lot.”

She doesn’t know much about her uncle Mont’s Great War service, though he was in France and Italy during the conflict. A postcard shows he had matinée idol looks!

Mont married in the 1920s and had a couple of daughters. During the Second World War he joined the volunteer reserves. He lived until 1980.

Josée taught in Walthamstow for a couple of years before spending more than a decade as a Carmelite nun. After leaving the order towards the end of the 1960s she taught in Chiswick for a year or so and then came to Suffolk when her mother became ill, getting a teaching post at St Mark’s primary school in Ipswich.

Hilda died in 1969, but her husband lived until the mid-1980s. He enjoyed being at Shotley Gate and was generally a contented man, says Josée. “He only grumbled in the morning because he hadn’t woken up! After he’d had his first grumble he was all right ? laid back ? and he’d quietly giggle. Very artistic.

“He once put a picture in the Royal Academy show for amateurs. He said a comment from a critic was that it was reminiscent of chocolate boxes – a bit twee.

“He went home and on the way passed a sweetshop, and there in the window was a great big box of chocolates with Constable’s The Hay Wain on it. So he said, to his dying day, he wished he’d bought it and given it to the critic, and said ‘Thanks for the compliment!’”

For more on East Anglia’s contribution to the war effort, visit our First World War page