Journal

The war to end all wars: Ernest Reginald Handford, South Stafforshire Regiment, killed in action 1914

A little over ninety-nine years ago one of my great-great uncles died of his wounds near the river Aisne in northern France, a few weeks after the outbreak of the First World War. He was one of the ‘Old Contemptibles’, the regular soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force which was all but destroyed by the end of that year, among the first of some eight million men of all sides killed by the time of the Armistice on 11 November 1918. Ten men in my immediate family were soldiers in that war, including my mother’s father and his brother and five further great-great uncles. They represented the gamut of the services –officers and enlisted men, infantry, cavalry, gunners and sappers, a doctor and a chaplain. Two of them were killed and two severely wounded, and for those who survived, like my grandfather, their lives and that of their families were permanently overshadowed by the war. I’m sure a similar family history could be told by many of you reading this piece. For me, that shadow is still very immediate, because my grandfather lived until I was in my twenties and I knew him well, so that words like ‘Somme’ and ‘Passchendaele’ conjure up for me not just the familiar images from old photographs but his detailed and often shocking memories from two and a half years on the Western Front.  I’ve been to many of the cemeteries tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in France and Belgium, places like Braine, pictured below, where my great-great uncle from 1914 is commemorated – like many his exact grave is unknown – and marvelled at the beauty and tranquillity of those places, and of a landscape once so devastated by war.  One this day, 11 November, I remember it as my grandfather did, as Armistice Day, the day in 1918 that ended what he and his generation knew as the Great War – the war that was supposed to end all wars.

 
  A view of the Commonwealth War Graves plot in Braine Communal Cemetery in northern France. 6878 Private Ernest Reginald Handford, 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment, my mother’s great-uncle, is commemorated on stone B8 – eighth from the left in the back row – along with a Lance-Serjeant of the 18th Hussars. The stones are ‘Special Memorials’ rather than headstones, because the exact positions of burials in this plot were lost some time after its use by No. 5 Casualty Clearance Station, based in Braine during the advance along the river Aisne when Ernest’s battalion saw its first action in France.  The ‘South Staffs’ began the war with two regular battalions, numbering some 1600 men; by war’s end the regiment had suffered 6,551 men killed. Ernest was 34, had been a filer in a bicycle factory before joining up, and left a wife and two small boys.    

 

A view of the Commonwealth War Graves plot in Braine Communal Cemetery in northern France. 6878 Private Ernest Reginald Handford, 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment, my mother’s great-uncle, is commemorated on stone B8 – eighth from the left in the back row – along with a Lance-Serjeant of the 18th Hussars. The stones are ‘Special Memorials’ rather than headstones, because the exact positions of burials in this plot were lost some time after its use by No. 5 Casualty Clearance Station, based in Braine during the advance along the river Aisne when Ernest’s battalion saw its first action in France.  The ‘South Staffs’ began the war with two regular battalions, numbering some 1600 men; by war’s end the regiment had suffered 6,551 men killed. Ernest was 34, had been a filer in a bicycle factory before joining up, and left a wife and two small boys.