A soldier’s footsteps

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…….

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