First World War Centenary Series #3: The Last Post

Things are starting to feel a bit heavy on Jackdaw. I was going to do a post today about when I went to Greece to visit the grave of my great-grandfather, buried in Thessaloniki. But I think I will save that for another time. This short post here will be the last of my First World War themed posts. Then we move on.

Trying to get a grasp on the numbers, the magnitude, in relation to the war is impossible. When we talk about the deaths, about the millions of deaths, they become just that. Numbers. Faceless, anonymous, horrifying, numbers. So I resorted to address the legacy of the conflict through my own family connections. These more personal links help to bring home the devastating effects of that conflict. Both of my grandmothers grew up without having their fathers in their lives because of that war. Every Remembrance Sunday I never forget that.

On the evening of the 4th of August, 1914, as the clock ticked ever closer to the deadline time of 11.00pm, the whole country waited to hear if Germany had responded to Britain’s ultimatum. In two different homes in Manchester, each just a short walk from each other, both Timothy O’Sullivan and Albert Cartwright would also have been waiting with their respective wives and young families. Or perhaps they had both gone to gather outside Manchester Town Hall to hear the news, before returning home to talk war around the hearth. What would those houses have been filled with? Feelings of anxiety, uncertainty? Perhaps a growing excitement? Maybe even an idea that war could somehow still be averted? Or were both families reconciled to the fact that everything had irrevocably changed?

Neither family could have known that, within four years Timothy would be dead, within five Albert. Forty nine years down the line from that night, these two families would become connected when Timothy’s grandson (my Dad) would marry Albert’s granddaughter (my mum). At the wedding, both the mother of the groom and the mother of the bride would have that sense of loss in common.

This is my blood-story that brings home the tragedy of the period to me. It is only through stories like this that we can fully appreciate how children, families, were cheated. As a father myself, who was lucky enough to grow up with my father in my life, that is how it would feel to me. Cheated. How different things could have been if only these people had been born in a different period of history. But this is now part of my family history. Part of my story too.

Along with the family perspective, another way we can get to understand the impact of the war is through the local connection. There are the names on local memorials, stories in local archives and on the lips of the people that we meet. For months now our local newspaper has been printing stories that include things that I can relate to. The names of streets that the soldiers came from, the same streets that I have grown up on. The name of schools and churches that those young men attended, institutions that are still part of my community.

One local story that stayed with me was one that I read about a few years ago. It was a story that took place not on a battlefield, not in the theatre of war, but here on the streets of my town, Middleton.

It was a written account of a local who remembers witnessing one day, up in the Cheapside area of the town, the local postman sat sobbing on a kerb by the roadside. A woman who lived nearby was sat with her arm around his shoulders, silently consoling him. This postman spent everyday delivering telegrams to fearful households, breaking the news that a loved one had been lost.

I was a postman for eleven years. I was accustomed to people waiting expectantly for the post, some not leaving home until I had arrived. For him it must have been so different. No-one wanting him to call. Every dreading household watching out to see which house in the street he was going to next. In the end it must have been too much for him-the constant, devastated reactions of people that he knew. Bringing bad tidings about people that he knew.

The family stories, the local stories. It is these that bring home to me what the consequences of the war was. The unparalleled, worldwide devastation and loss, seen here in microcosm.

Tomorrow, something lighter. I promise.

First World War Centenary Series #2: Grave Search

A week last Sunday my wife, three of my children and I went to Phillips Park Cemetery, in Manchester, to search for the resting place of some of my ancestors. Armed with a grave reference number, we went to view the place that my Great Grandfather Albert Cartwright, wife Ada, baby daughter Edith, eleven old daughter Margaret, and Ada’s brother George Campbell all rest.

I was also verifying my Mum’s memory that there was no headstone there, for reasons of my own. She recalls that when her Mum, my Gran Lillian, used to visit her husband’s grave, she would save some of the flowers that she brought with her for his grave, and place them on the  ground where her mother Ada was buried.  She didn’t recall any mention of the other family members. An on-line search told me that Ada shared her resting place with her other kin named above.

This is Albert Cartwright with Ada. He was in the 11th btn Lancashire Fusiliers. He died at home the day before New Year’s Eve in 1919, as a result of being gassed when fighting at the front. His war records were destroyed in the bombing of the Second World War, but I do have his death certificate. His cause of death is given as Lobar Pneumonia and cardiac failure. Those who suffered the effects of gas, with the damage done to the lungs and throat, were often susceptible to ailments like pneumonia and bronchial problems.

Ada died in 1927.


Phillips Park Cemetery is a lovely, well kept cemetery near to Manchester City’s Etihad stadium. It houses, among others, the remains of men who participated in he battle at Rorke’s Drift, made famous by the film Zulu, and also the one that became known as the Charge Of The Light Brigade.


First thing we saw was the war memorial.


My children-three faces among the names.


They loved running in the neat, open spaces. My Doctor Who-mad three and a half year old son marched among the graves as a Cyberman. Maybe a Phillips Park first. But he did seem wary around the many weeping angels. These evil denizens of time and space were in a bad way, many of them missing limbs or threatening with amputated stumps.

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This created poppy site was a nice touch-although at that time there were only a few of the flowers blooming.


The blood flower.


Eventually we located the site of the family grave, and Mum was right, there was no headstone. They lie buried in a plot between the light coloured headstone and the tree.


Beneath that earth lie two generations of my ancestors. I couldn’t help but think of the ones who have stood here when that earth lay open, mourning for their loved one being gently lowered and covered from view. People of my blood, my line.


When I was a teenager I lost a photograph of Albert, which had been taken at the front. Situated among the mud was one of those early, prototype tanks. Albert and a handful of other men were sat in front and on top of this tank. It was a great photograph, memorable and emotive. I have lamented its loss ever since.

With all the recent publicity about the First World War centenary, showing the many, too many, graves that lie throughout the world, and also the memory of the grave that I visited in Thessaloniki, in Greece, belonging to my other Great-Grandfather, I began to think. Albert  died as a result of his injuries in battle. Surely he would qualify for a war grave, as stipulated by the  War Graves Commission?

I shall look into it, try and get him a headstone as recompense for losing that photograph. Sacrifices such as Albert’s should not go unrecognised. Unmarked. Many times I had passed that spot of bare ground when cutting through the cemetery to go to the Manchester City games, and never knew that he, and the rest of the family, were buried there.

Whether I end up acquiring a headstone or not, I am glad that I located the site. It is not too far from the memorial that I attend every Remembrance Sunday that hosts my other Great-Grandfather’s name. I will be bringing an extra cross to stick into the ground there.

On the way out we sought out my Grandparents grave. My Gran, with my Grandfather, lies a five minute walk away from where she used to lay lowers upon that bare, anonymous ground.


First World War Centenary Series #1: Two Unknown Soldiers

With today marking the 100th anniversary of Britain’s entry into the First World War, I hope to do a series of posts from a personal, family angle. I hope you will indulge me a little.

Nationally there are many events taking place. I know that the moat of the Tower of London is being filled with poppies, and tonight people are being encouraged to turn off their lights between 10 and 11pm. 

Even if you are a staunch pacifist, it’s not about glorifying war. It’s about remembering the millions whose lives were lost to the senseless slaughter that engulfed the world. The millions who were unfortunate enough to have been born in that period of our history. How thankful I am that I arrived in the seventies, I don’t think I could have measured up to those guys.



I am attending a service in a local church this afternoon.

Of all the old family photographs I have, there are two that sometimes get overlooked because the people on them have not been identified. I do wish my ancestors would have thought to write their names on the back of them-would have been so much easier!

The following photograph is connected to my Gran’s family on my Mum’s side.


I have no idea who this soldier is. Although my Gt.Grandfather Albert was a Sergeant (coming in a later post) I don’t think that this is him. The woman looks like she is a Campbell-my Great Gran Ada’s family. Ada was the one married to my Gt.Grandfather Albert. Again-later!

I look at this photograph and wonder about both the circumstance and context. Was this a trip to the seaside, one last outing before the soldier left the woman behind to go to war? One last happy memory before a final parting?

Or was the soldier home on leave, and had just been gazing out to sea before the photographer called out to him? Perhaps he had been thinking of his friends overseas? Maybe even fearful of what fate awaited him over there. Without knowing who he was, his future will forever remain unknown to me.

The following photograph is connected to my Grandfather’s family on my Dad’s side.


I believe that the man on the end,right (as you look at it) is one of my Grandfather’s brothers, but I don’t know which one of two possible candidates he is. He could be John Murray, born in 1893. I have no other (known) photograph of John to compare this to. He died in 1947 of Pulmonary TB.

If not John, then it could be his brother, James Murray, three years younger, being born around 1896. I have a couple of other photographs of James, including this one with his wife May. What do you think-could it be him?


The problem is that all the Murray’s looked like each other!  

What of the photograph of the soldiers itself? On the rear was written Ham-En-Artois, which is a French farming village close to the Belgian border. I intend to look up its relevance in the war. The thing with family history is it’s never ending!

The chevrons on the right sleeves that the soldiers seem to be proudly displaying signifies overseas service, twelve months per chevron. The ‘bar’ stripe on the lower left cuff signifies that the man has been previously wounded. Also, the men are wearing spurs on their boots (gaiters?) which indicate they could have been part of a gun unit in the Royal Field Artillery. Or maybe the Horse Artillery.

Whether it is my Great Uncle John Murray or my Great Uncle James Murray in this photograph, I do know that they both survived the war. Whether the other three friends did I will never know. 

Be it John or James,  perhaps this scene was often viewed in grief, with a sense of loss for friendships forged and lost on the battlefield. Though this photograph remains, the stories, the heroism, the tragedies, are all now lost.

One last thing, thinking of horses in the war. I remember a few years ago reading of the fondness the men had for the poor creatures who were brought into that man-made carnage, and this painting stuck in my mind. Its title is ‘Goodbye, Old Man.”



World War One-My Hometown’s Tribute In Spoken Poetry And Film

This video was made by some of the people from my hometown of Middleton, and of the Langley Estate where I live. Extremely moving, it contains images and spoken poetry, composed by the residents especially, referring to local people who fought in the war, and some of the families left behind. It is the real lives, the real stories, that really brings it all home.

Please watch.