Charlie Connelly travels to the Western Front to look for a branch on his family tree that, like many, was uprooted too soon.

Charlie Connelly

Bestselling author, award-winning broadcaster, three-time winner of Radio 4’s ‘Book of the week’… and has performed a duet live on Uzbekistan national television with the nation’s biggest pop star.

@charlieconnelly
charlieconnelly.com

Published

November 7, 2014

A municipal basketball court in the shadow of a west London tower block is, on the face of it, a strange place to start a journey into the full horror of the First World War. But that leaf-strewn, caged rectangle of tarmac was where a short, tragic life began and my mission to put right an inexplicable stroke of family amnesia commenced one blustery spring day earlier this year.

While foraging among the branches of my family tree I’d turned up a great-uncle I’d never heard of who was killed in Flanders exactly a week before the Armistice, on November 4th 1918. His name was Edward Connelly and he was barely nineteen years old.

I mentioned him to my dad: he’d never heard of Edward Connelly either. This was his uncle, his father’s brother, and none of us had any idea he’d ever existed. We’d always heard that my grandfather had joined up to fight while under age but never talked about what he’d seen or experienced. Did this mean that he’d inadvertently blocked his own brother out of the family history in coping with his own trauma?

I felt guilty that this Great War ancestor had been entirely forgotten. It was as if he’d died twice, once on the battlefield and again when those who remembered him, remembered his face, his voice, his personality, also died.

The fizzling out of collective memory is one thing, but as I investigated further I found few traces that he’d ever lived. All I could find were a birth certificate, his name on a couple of census returns and a grave location from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Even his military service record had been among those destroyed in the Blitz. But these scraps of clues were enough to give me the bones of a journey, a penance if you like, to pay tribute to the memory of a teenager from the London slums swept up and discarded by the gruesome machinations of global history, only to be forgotten even by those of us who share his name.

I would travel from his birthplace in Kensal Rise in west London to his grave in a small military cemetery in Harelbeke, just outside Kortrijk.

Which is why I found myself standing one blustery morning on a basketball court where, on April 25 1899, Edward Connelly had been born in a tenement building at the heart of one of London’s poorest areas.

I walked out of the court and set off for Flanders. I travelled across London then out into the Kent countryside; the rolling, chalky Downs, the picture-postcard villages, the idealised image of England that young men like Edward kept in their minds as they waded through muddy trenches or crawled on their bellies among the rats, barbed wire and corpses of no-man’s-land.

I crossed the English Channel as my great-uncle would have done, a boy who’d probably never previously travelled further than the railway depot where he’d worked washing the soot and filth from train carriages. On the deck of the ferry I tried to imagine his crossing, jammed in with hundreds of other new recruits, not even enough room to stretch out and sleep, probably in pitch darkness, the banter of bravado masking the churning fear they’d all have felt. Edward crossed in the spring of 1918 and everyone on his ship would have been thoroughly disabused of the glory of war by then: they’d have seen the grief of relatives, friends and neighbours at the loss of loved ones, passed the wounded and the traumatised in the streets.

From Calais I travelled along the French coast and crossed the Belgian border at De Panne before turning south-east to Diksmuide, scene of some of the fiercest Belgian resistance to the German advance of the war, then headed south to Poperinge.

Local café owners would forsake their customary Belgian dishes for egg and chips, and endless pots of tea.

‘Pops’ as it was known to the Tommies is a rare thing: a First World War landmark with a broadly cheerful reputation. Situated to the west of the Ypres salient, Poperinge was where the troops would decamp for rest and recuperation. Local café owners would forsake their customary Belgian dishes for egg and chips, and endless pots of tea.

Most notable in this reassuringly placid slice of home so close to the front was Talbot House, founded and run by the Reverend ‘Tubby’ Clayton as a place where troops could relax, read, drink tea, sing songs around the piano, take part in gang shows and even pray in the tiny makeshift chapel in the eaves of the chateau (the altar was a converted carpenter’s sawhorse). Talbot House, or ‘Toc H’ as it was known to the men, retains a tangible tranquillity today, and once visitors have passed through its excellent museum to the main house volunteers offer them a cup of tea in the conservatory, the same small kindness that was extended to exhausted, traumatised soldiers briefly out of the trenches a century ago.

From Poperinge I turned east and travelled the eight miles to arguably the most famous of the Flanders war towns, Ypres. I stayed at the ‘Old Tom’ guesthouse, apparently named after a British war veteran who maintained a stall there selling battlefield souvenirs for many years after the war, on the main square. Dominating the square is the magnificent, massive Cloth Hall, originally dating back to the twelfth century and, like the rest of the town, reconstructed with painstaking accuracy from the rubble of a town almost completely destroyed by the conflict. It’s also home to the outstanding and recently fully refurbished ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum, a moving and affecting journey through the war made more poignant by the knowledge that nearly every exhibit was retrieved from the battlefields around Ypres.

From Calais I travelled along the French coast and crossed the Belgian border at De Panne before turning south-east to Diksmuide, scene of some of the fiercest Belgian resistance to the German advance of the war, then headed south to Poperinge.

But when I stood in front of that simple, dignified grave in a corner of a small Belgian town close to the French border and saw my own surname carved into the Portland stone I became wracked by a huge, heaving sob and found tears blurring my vision.

That evening I attended the nightly Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate at the eastern end of the town. At 8pm the roads around the gate are closed and a crowd gathers for a short memorial service, the climax of which consists of an immaculately-observed minute’s silence and the playing of the Last Post. As the crowd dispersed back towards the square I turned and saw the white stonework of the gate, inscribed with the names of nearly 55,000 Allied dead with no known grave, burning deep orange in the reflection of a stunning sunset.

I left Ypres the next morning with a strange reluctance, passing through the Menin Gate as thousands of soldiers had done on their way to the front, and continued east to Kortrijk. I spent the night at the town’s historic Hotel Damier on the main square, lying awake deep into the night in anticipation of visiting my ancestor’s grave the next morning. I wasn’t sure what to feel. In the previous days I’d been immersed in the generality of the First World War and was overwhelmed by the weight of the horror and the history, particularly as I’d been travelling the same roads as the men who to me had previously just been pictures in books, or jerky figures in grainy black and white footage stepping over barbed wire and disappearing into clouds of artillery smoke.

I rose early after troubled dreams. Kortrijk was just waking up as I set out across the five miles to the pleasant little town of Harelbeke, where Edward Connelly had lain forgotten for the last 96 years. I walked the last few yards to the cemetery entrance almost reluctantly, my gait growing more cumbersome with each step. I knew roughly where Edward’s grave was in the New British Cemetery – a relatively small one as these things go: the last resting place for just over 1225 men – and barely felt the spongey give of the immaculately kept grass beneath my feet as I paced sideways along a row of identical white gravestones until I saw a familiar surname, the one we shared, carved into the stone in front of me.

G/68396 PRIVATE

E.C.J. CONNELLY

THE QUEEN’S

4TH NOVEMBER 1918

Despite the relentless awareness of the terrible events of 1914-1918 that had underpinned my journey as I passed through places made infamous by the mass slaughter of the Great War I’d felt a strange emotional emptiness, as if I’d thrown up shields against the enormity of what happened to thousands upon thousands of ordinary men a century ago. But when I stood in front of that simple, dignified grave in a corner of a small Belgian town close to the French border and saw my own surname carved into the Portland stone I became wracked by a huge, heaving sob and found tears blurring my vision.

I hadn’t expected this. I’d just wanted to put right an unintentional slight of genealogy, to make a pilgrimage of secular penance. But when it came down to it, Edward Connelly wasn’t a hero. He wasn’t even really a soldier. Like thousands of his contemporaries he was just a boy who never stood a chance.

The Forgotten Soldier, by Charlie Connelly, published by Harper Element, priced £9.99

Covering Image by Wernervc