Today is Remembrance Sunday, and a hundred years after that terrible war came to an end, here in Normandy, every village has its own memorial with the list of young men who never came home carefully carved into the stone monuments or plaques on the wall of the church.
A while ago, I was buying on an antique fair when I noticed some documents lying on the ground beside the vendor. They looked interesting and I bent down to retrieve them from the dust. The antique dealer gave them to me, clearly seeing no value in the documents.
When I got home, I carefully unfolded the fragile sheets of paper and discovered that the documents were actually conscription papers dating from 1914 and 1915, at the start of the WW1. These large forms were filled in by hand, in a beautiful meticulous script, and they list young men who at the turn of the century lived not far from here in Normandy.
It is tragic to think that so many of these boys certainly never came home. But what I find the most poignant are the personal details that tell us so much about life at that time in the quiet green valleys of Normandy.
Most of the future soldiers listed on the documents were 20 years old. Besides their age, their profession, the names of their parents, their height and weight (all very lightweight) and any distinguishing physical features, they were also asked a series of questions.
Their level of education was graded from 0 – 5, according to whether they knew how to read and write and whether they had any higher education. They were also asked what else they could do, and I find the questions fascinating:
Is he a musician
Which instrument does he play?
Can he ride a horse
Can he handle horses?
Does he know how to drive a car?
Can he ride a bike?
Can he handle pigeons?
Can he handle a hot air balloon?
Can he swim?
Has he won any prizes for shooting?
Has he won any prizes for gymnastics?
Does he have a driving licence?
You may be shocked to know that although most candidates could read and write, very many of the young men replied ‘Non’ to all of the questions. Can you imagine the contrast to our generation of twenty year olds today? These were quiet and lonely times, when people had little opportunity to educate themselves or learn new skills. Once this form was completed and signed, these young men kissed their parents goodbye and went off to a war , where eight million of them would die, very many in the middle of a cold muddy field with nobody to comfort them.
On a more personal note, I had a great uncle Harry, who I never met, and who died aged twenty at the Battle of the Somme. His body was not found, although his name is carved into the big monument there. Small comfort to his mother and sister who spent years trekking from one military hospital to another in the hope of finding young Harry, but without success.
Let us honour the soldiers of the first world war today. Be grateful for the sacrifice they made, but also hope that our own children and grandchildren would never experience the horror and butchery of that terrible First World War.
And if you’d like to read a short love story that takes place during the first World Warn then click here