On this day 100 years ago today a battle begun, one which would see thousands killed, and family histories forever changed, including mine.
When I started doing my family tree I began with my mums side, unusual as it is often easier to trace back the family name but my gran was still alive and could help me on that side, but curiosity did get the better of me and I wanted to know why my dad knew nothing of his family, why I could not remember my granddad ever talking about his family, although there was one brother who visited him. My dad was reticent, I think he suspected some terrible dark skeleton hidden in the closet. What I found was a man who went off to fight a war in a country he would never leave and do it for a country that would, at a later date put up signs barring those with his heritage.
In 1877 of Irish immigrant parents, Michael Acton was born in Newcastle-Under-Lyme, Staffordshire. Making his way north through Lancaster he ended up in Castleford, where he met and married my great-grandmother Fanny Wall. Together they had five children, frustratingly I cannot find the document I had with his signing up date so I cannot be sure if he ever saw his youngest child before he left for war.
As a coal miner I think it unlikely he would have been conscripted and I am pretty sure from what I remember of my research at the time he signed up before conscription begun, just another man who wanted to what he believed was the right thing and make the world a better place for his family. Maybe he was naive and believed the home by Christmas posters, maybe he thought by fighting for the country his Irish heritage might be overlooked as he sought to provide for his family we will never know because my granddad was only 7 years old when his dad left to fight for freedom on foreign soil and he would never see him again.
My dad only ever saw one photo of his granddad, a big blonde haired Irish man standing next to a horse and cart in the photo, he had asked his dad who it was only to be told it was his granddad and the matter dropped. No one knows what happened to the photo, my aunt does not recall seeing it and she checked the photos she took from the house when it was cleared and cannot find it, maybe another relative has it, maybe it got lost, tucked inside something thrown away as unimportant. It is the truth that there were not as many photos back then, certainly very few people could afford to have them taken and no one had personal camera’s, I like to think somewhere in other branches of the family they do exist because in some ways there is nothing left other than a few words on census records, and on military records. There is no grave to lay flowers at, and though biologically he lives on through me, my siblings and our children, the name is passed on less and less over time, my son bears his fathers surname and while my daughter does have it eventually she will marry and change it and her children will more than likely not take it forward, from our branch only my brothers sons will carry it forth.
But I digress, so a man sets out, leaves his loved ones behind, I doubt any of them really though of the circumstances they would end up in, if he had left expecting to leave his wife a widow and children fatherless could he have still signed that bit of paper? Maybe he believed they would be looked after, from stories my Aunt remembers that was not always the case, my granddad spoke bitterly of the priest coming round and taking the last penny from the fireplace, I was christened Church of England, it never crossed my mind we would be anything else but piecing together the facts and anecdotes my Aunt knew, we came to a conclusion the Acton’s who came from Ireland, travelled from County Galway to a new life in England were probably Catholic, I confess it came as a bit of a shock and we have no technical proof at the minute but it does make some things fall into place. It is also worth noting the names O’Brien and Connor also feature down that family tree which adds a little more circumstantial weight to that hypothesis.
So what do I know about this man well very little other than these few pieces of information..
Dead! A simple four letter word that changed so much, but it get worse because normally when a loved one dies you have a grave, somewhere to lie flowers and acknowledge they lived but not for him. There was no body, no resting place his wife and children could visit instead he is commemorated in a cemetery in France, Thiepval, along with thousands of others who never came home,
Instead of returning home to his family they received medals in his honour which could never take the place of flesh and blood,
A name carved in stone that remembers a man his children never had the chance to know, and for what because some men believe they have the right to determine the fate of others, they think they have the right for power and wealth, because they think they are more worthy than their fellow man and hold others live not only as having no worth but in contempt. Even today around the world there will be families mourning loved ones, killed for standing up for what is right, killed for trusting the words of people who do not care if they live or die. There will be others who die for causes they believe in, believe honourable but they too are wrong. No one should ever have to die for a cause, because the only cause we have any business with in this life or the next is peace, love, tolerance and understanding; whatever your belief system you have no right to judge another person no right to act as your own god and pass sentence. We can only hope that the anniversary of one of the worst conflicts in history can remind us what they fought and died for and that many people from different nations stood together united in the hope that they would make the world a better place for us.