A Family at War

Donald NorfolkIn the last instalment of my story about our branch of the Norfolk family I related how two young men suffered the death of both their parents at the beginning of the twentieth century. Although they didn’t know that a recession was looming, both took the precaution of getting steady jobs with government funded bodies. The eldest, my uncle Fred, joined the staff of the British Museum and once established  married his childhood sweetheart and soon became the father of two young girls. The younger lad, my father, joined what eventually became the British Telephone company. He was just sixteen when he was orphaned, and at that rebellious age was keener on causing mayhem than on dating girls. But fate had other plans. One night he went out with a gang of his mates, hell-bent on causing trouble at a local Baptist church where a revivalist mission service was being held. Instead of disrupting the meeting as he planned, he underwent a dramatic religious conversion. Soon after, he won the affection of one of the twelve-year-old girls in the congregation and began a steady courtship. Despite the opposition of her parents they became engaged and made plans to marry. While they were enjoying a romantic picnic in Epping Forest they heard the shock news that Britain had declared war on Germany. After a brief debate they reluctantly decided to postpone their wedding until the war was over.

This was not an option for Fred, who responded immediately to the call to serve his king and country, saying in a letter: ‘I don’t like the idea, but if anyone has to defend my wife and children it’s going to be me.’  He enrolled as an infantryman, which meant he was quickly drafted for service in the front line. Ernie, my father, had a cushier posting. Having been trained as a telephone engineer he was sent to the Middle East to establish telecommunication links between the front lines in Egypt and the Dardanelles. While he was away, his fiancée compiled an album of the cards and photographs he sent back from his various ports of call, which make his trip seem more like a Baedeker holiday tour than a stint of army service.

By contrast, Fred’s military career was brief and barbarous. Its course can be traced from the letters he wrote home, which are among the most treasured of our family mementoes.  An early one describes his exhausting seven-mile march to the front line, carrying a pack laden with ninety pounds of ammunition and supplies. On reaching the first communication trench, he wrote: ‘We waded first through water knee-deep, and then through mud up to the thighs.’ Then, in a postscript to the note, he added an apology: ‘You must not mind this letter being dirty, because mud is our bed, our pillow and writing desk too.’

Three months later he reported with pride that he had been made a lance corporal, a promotion which meant that if he should die his widow would get a pension of slightly more than five shillings a week.  He expressed his thanks for the ‘eight years of perfect happiness’ his marriage had brought, and then admitted his concern that he might not survive the conflict.  This foreboding was voiced more strongly in his next letter, in which he wrote: ‘Now that each day brings a possibility of temporary parting I want you to know how well I love you and how pleasant my thoughts are of wife, children and home.’  Nevertheless, he urged his young bride not to worry. ‘Be my own brave little woman and put your trust in the Maker of all destinies because I feel sure He will look after you and our bairns if I am gathered to the fold.’

Days after those words were written he suffered the fate he feared and predicted. The flow of mud-splattered letters ceased, and in their place the family received a stark statement from the War Office on the dreaded Army Form B104. ‘Madam, It is my painful duty to inform you … that Frederick Norfolk had been killed in action on the 15th September

1916’. The family were in shock. ‘I am deeply grieved. May God sustain you.’ was the message of condolence my father sent back from Egypt in a creased and yellowing telegram that we still possess. As the family’s sole surviving male he was now the head of the extended family household, a responsibility he assumed as soon as the war ended, as I’ll relate in a few week’s time.

© Donald Norfolk 2010


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