In December 1919, Tom Clarke, formerly of the Cheshire Regiment, wrote to his old army pal, Edward Fernley. The two men had recently been discharged from active service and transferred to the reserve. In his letter, which Edward, my grandfather, kept all his life, Tom Wrote:
‘I have got quite used to civvies now… I and I hope we are never called upon to wear kaki again.’
Tom and Edward, were not enlisted in the army until the summer of 1918 and went on active service just a few days before the Armistice of November 11th. They didn’t fight on the Western Front, but they would have witnessed the aftermath of the conflict. Both men were part of the British forces occupying the Rhineland during a period of revolution, which broke out in Germany in the late summer and autumn of 1918. As part of an army of occupation, they would have seen how the civilian population of Germany was affected.
But they were still the lucky ones. My grandfather and Tom Clarke survived the war and were able to take up their old lives once more. Millions were not so lucky, and there are some other items in our family archive which tell sadder tales.
During his twelve months of active army service Edward Fernley kept a brief diary, thirty pages of neatly written pencil notes. It’s not an exciting tale and Edward’s war seemed mainly to consist of marching and long train rides across Western Europe. In March 1919 Edward found himself in Germany as part of the Army of Occupation in the Rhineland. After travelling through Koln, Edward ended up in the town of Bornheim, a few kilometres north west of Bonn.
It was there that Edward found himself transferred into the Army Service Corps – the ASC – working in a depot responsible for supplies and transport for the army. But amongst all the humdrum details in his diary, there’s one brief passage that stands out starkly.
‘…on the afternoon Sunday 10th we was moved out of the picture house into private billets. The owner of the house had four sons killed in the war.’
Surprisingly, considering the impact on their family and the indignity of life under an army of occupation, Edward said the owners of the house were ‘…very nice people.’
The photograph below of the three men seated at a table was, I’m pretty sure, taken somewhere between December 2015 and Autumn 1917. My Grandfather, Edward Fernley is on the left. Both Edward and the man in the centre of the photograph are wearing Derby Scheme armbands. These show that they had declared, or attested, that they were prepared to join the armed forces when required. Edward Fernley attested on December 11th 1915, so the photograph must have been taken after that date.
The reason I know that the photograph was taken before Autumn 1917, is because of the man on the left hand side of the photograph. He was Percy Swallow and he lived on the same lane as my grandfather, with his parents John and Sarah. He died on the 31st October 1917, fighting with his regiment, the Sherwood Foresters. The two photographs below are of the memorial card printed to commemorate his death and the official photograph of his war grave.
It’s a sad story, but one which shows why we should still remember our war dead. It’s a timely reminder, too, that both sides in the conflict suffered equally. There was little to separate the parents of Percy Swallow from the couple that billeted Edward Fernley in Bornheim. Both sets of parents were probably ordinary people caught up in events they had little control over.
The only reason I’m able to tell this story is because of the foresight of my Grandfather Edward. He wasn’t an educated man, in the formal sense, but he held on to the letters and photographs and memorial cards that mean I can tell this story today.
I hope you like the post and please spare those two minutes on Sunday morning to remember the victims of war. I’ve not with finished tales of my family’s war service just yet. My maternal grandfather served in the navy during the first world war and I have a couple of photographs which hint at another fascinating story.