My dad's war record hurts my soul

TOMORROW marks the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme - in which Britain suffered 60,000 casualties in 24 hours. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING meets an Ipswich woman who found out her father fought there, only for her own life and beliefs to turn out very different.

By Tracey Sparling

TOMORROW marks the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme - in which Britain suffered 60,000 casualties in 24 hours. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING meets an Ipswich woman who found out her father fought there, only for her own life and beliefs to turn out very different.

TOURISTS of today who flock to lush pastures in France, struggle to relate the miles of agricultural land to the horrors of World War One.

Indeed 90 years have passed since the battle of the Somme was fought there, from July 1 until November 18, in 1916. People are still quietly reminded not to pick up the old shells or grenades as souvenirs if they find them: they are liable to explode and kill.


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Jennifer Hartley visited those killing fields in 1997, and today back home in Ipswich she treasures her own family records of the battle.

She pores over the photocopied pages of her father Clifford Hicks' wartime diary, finding handwritten clues about the battle which he felt was too horrifying to speak of, later in life.

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His original diary is now in the Imperial War Museum, and Jennifer also traced his regiment's war records, held in a big wooden chest at the public records office in Kew.

The handwritten records from 1916 and 1917 came to Jennifer with added potency, as before she discovered her father's past, she and her husband became committed peace campaigners. Their dedication to the cause saw them peacefully protest at Greenham Common, and camp in a caravan outside disused RAF Molesworth for ten months in the 1980s when the base was proposed as a site for cruise missiles.

Jennifer of Bransby Gardens, said: “I was born when he was 45, and he died when I was 28. I was always aware he didn't talk about his war service. I suppose that unless you were there with them, you would never really be able to comprehend how awful it was.

“When I think what happened to those men, it still makes me angry to think of so many men, so many fathers, sons and brothers slaughtered. They believed they were fighting to end all wars, but of course then came the Second World War, and the world is still fighting today. It's got to the stage now where reports of more deaths in Iraq are minor bulletins on the tv news; almost glossed over before they move on to the next item.

“While I don't agree with war, I wouldn't want to belittle what the soldiers - most of them were boys - did in the first world war, they gave up their lives for their country.”

Jennifer went to see the cemeteries in France, where her father's regiment the Lancashire Fusiliers fought in the trenches. She said: “It was an emotional to be there, and I still find it emotional to think of now…the sheer scale of the cemeteries, and they are still so well-tended by the local villagers.

“It was just mindblowing to see the war records in London, and read the descriptions of what life was like in the regiment. Every day there is an entry to say the number of people killed. Where they state 'online' it meant 'on the front line.'”

Jennifer became a counsellor at a GP surgery, and the peace campaigner said: “I just wonder if subconsciously, I chose that path because of what my father had been through.”

Even the coils of razor wire on Jennifer's photographs of Molesworth, echoes the stark images of the wartime trenches.

When her mother Violet wrote her life story, it included a description of herself as a 15-year-old girl living at Leigh-On-Sea, listening to the sound of gunfire over the water at night, wondering if her future husband was fighting out there. She only met Clifford for the first time, when he returned to Britain, describing him as the 'office jester' and saying she fell in love with his sense of humour.

At just 5ft tall, Clifford enlisted in the Lancashire Fusiliers, known as the Bantams because all were too short to really be in the Army but Britain needed all hands to the pump. The regiment was in France for most of the Battle of the Somme. The final pages of his diary describe the day the armistice was signed, and his subsequent journey back to London.

Jennifer added: “I just think we have to learn from war, and not keep going on the same track of fighting. There has to be a better answer than sending people to get shot.

“I also believe there should be a funding programme so all children can visit the battlefields. They need to see the tombstones and the ages of those boys inscribed on them.”

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Do you think children should learn more about the wars? Write to Star Letters, The Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or email eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk.

Weblink: www.cwgc.org.

The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916 - the bloodiest day in British military history when the country suffered nearly 60,000 casualties, two for every yard of their front.

It lasted for five months and was one of the most bitterly contested and costly battles of the First World War.

Of the 56 British army divisions at the time, no fewer than 53 went through the Somme in 1916; of the remainder another one fought at Fromelles in a Somme-related diversion.

After a disastrous opening for the British attack, the Allied offensive pushed on yard by yard through a hot summer and came eventually halted as the mud of winter closed in. Little ground had been taken, but the German army had been mortally wounded.

Torrential rains in October turned the battlegrounds into a muddy quagmire and in mid-November the battle ended, with the Allies having advanced only five miles. The British had suffered around 420,000 casualties, the French 195,000 and the Germans around 650,000.

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