A soldier’s footsteps

William Burton before embarking for France,with his wife and brother.

William Burton before embarking for France,with his wife and brother.

I wasn’t able to participate in any of the events marking today’s 100 year anniversary of the day marking the start of World War 1 or to watch as large swathes of the country went dark as a mark of respect to the millions who lost their lives in the conflict. But I did want to remember the past and what better way than to celebrate the role that one of my own family members played.

My great grandfather William Burton was 42 years old in August 1914. Like thousands of other men he voluntarily enlisted shortly after war was declared, travellling 20 miles to the nearest recruiting station to join the South Wales Borderers. By September 1915 he was in France and marching to the Somme. William was one of the lucky ones, despite the horrendous loss of life on the French and Belgian fronts, he saw out the war and returned home to his wife and three chilren in 1919.

What happened to him during those years is something his family never knew since apparently he never talked about it. All my mother can remember about him is that on Armistice Day every year until his death he out on some medals kept in a purple cloth bag and went to carry the standard at the village cenotaph. It wasn’t until I started digging around our family history that we learned how this man from a tiny village in South Wales had served in three theatres of war, in France, then Salonika and finally in Egypt. He had even taken photographs of his time in Egypt, tiny sepia pictures showing a camel train of supplies, soldiers relaxing in the sand in what we think is Port Said, and a military funeral.  I wish I knew what stories lay behind these pictures but they died with him.

Fortunately he left some kind of a trail.  A diary kept by the commander of his batallion gives a remarkable insight into the daily life he would have experienced. I know that on Oct 1, 1915 when he was marching towards the lines on the Somme,that the batallion was shelled. I know when he was sent back from trenches to take a hot bath and when he was given further training. I also know when he had to spend the night sleeping in the snow and without any shelter in the mountains of Salonika.

Through this meticulous account I will be able to follow in his footsteps as he protected his country so that I could live in peace. If only I had a chance to say thank you…….

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on August 5, 2014, in Book Reviews and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. I find this tribute a much finer participation than being an anonymous presence in a crowd. Well done Great Grandpa. Your family is rightly proud of you.

  2. It’s not unusual for those who have seen horrendous service during war to refuse to talk about it. My father, who was a FEPOW in World War II would never talk about what happened in those Far East camps. I found myself listening to a piece on the radio about the only member of my family that I know served in WWI. Albert Ball was a fighter pilot and like his WWII counterparts had as little chance of surviving. He died in 1917 and was given a funeral with full military honours by the Germans who respected his bravery as if he had been one of their own. For some reason I find that tremendously reassuring.

    • Luckily we do have some people who were willing to put pen to paper or to share their experiences so we can better understand what they endured. Without them we would be relying on just the official accounts. That recognition for your relative does have a certain resonance doesn’t it.

  3. It really makes me wonder more about my own family’s history in generally, but specifically related to these types of stories and historical incidences. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Lovely post, thank you for sharing! I’m curious how you were able to access his commander’s diary? I’m surprised there seems to be little attention paid here to the anniversary. Much more attention for the WWII D-Day anniversary.

    • The diaries are stored at the national records office at Kew near London. Not all of them have survived of course but many of them have. They are fascinating to read the detail which is usually written on thin paper in really good handwriting.

  5. So many remarkable stories! Thank you so much for sharing your Great grandfather’s.

    • It’s the stories of the ordinary people that have the most resonance for me Ali. Yiu e probably come across many of them through your Reading the War project.

  6. Just to imagine his state of mind at that time . You are definitely a part of a legendary past 🙂

  7. What terrible things your Grandfather went through, it’s not surprising he didn’t ever talk about it. Thanks for sharing his story with us.

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