The Dead of Fromelles
A couple of days ago the first new World War One cemetery for 80 years was dedicated in Fromelles in northern France. It contains the remains of 250 Australian and British soldiers who were among the 7500 killed in the allied offensive at Fromelles, a feint intended to divert German troops from the upcoming Somme offensive in July 1916. The Germans saw through the ruse. The resulting slaughter was as meaningless as any in that monstrous conflict.
The story came at a time when I was helping to clear my parents’ house in advance of its sale. I was keen to make sure that no family memorabilia were accidentally thrown away. In the process I discovered many photographs and documents that I hadn’t seen before. I was particularly looking for mementos of my maternal grandfather. He was an officer in the White Star Line (owners of the Titanic) at the time the war broke out. Rather than join the Navy, he chose to serve in the Royal Artillery.
One of our most treasured pieces of family history is my grandfather’s war diary. Although he transferred from the White Star Line to the Army early in 1915, for various reasons he didn’t arrive at the Western Front until August 1916. His diaries cover the entire period of the War. As in many diaries of the time, he describes life on the ground rather than the grand sweep of historic events.
I never met my grandfather. He died of stomach cancer in 1933 in his mid-forties. The received wisdom within the family was that his life as an engineer in the White Star liners – much of which will have been spend among the engines – was responsible for the cancer. Reading the diaries, I’m not sure. He suffered from frequent illness. He was caught up in gas attacks several times – part of his job involved training his regiment to protect themselves from gas.
The diaries graphically bear out other descriptions of life on the Western Front. Long periods of boredom punctuated by short episodes of sheer terror. He was not afraid to admit his fear.
Harry Hickson comes over as a profoundly decent man caught up in a world over which he had little control. Like so many others, he survived by luck rather than courage, and knew it. He didn’t live long enough to see his only son killed in the Second World War, but he saw enough horror to last his lifetime.
Among the items I found at my parents’ house was Harry’s war medals. As a collector of ancient coins, I’m moved by artifacts that have been touched and used by many before me. War medals are different. Kept in a box and brought out for the occasional ceremony, they will have served as a reminder to one brave man of his part in a profound human experience shared by too many in the past century and now in the current one. To hold them is to connect personally to someone with whom I share genes but not a common memory.
I have never been in a war. As much as any of the war movies I’ve seen, Harry Hickson’s diaries in their modest way provide me with an insight into an experience many are still going through today.
In the next post, and possibly more thereafter, I’m publishing extracts from Harry’s diary. It’s a small tribute to the dead of Fromelles and all who have suffered in war since then.