The 16thSeptember 2014 marked the centenary of my grandfather’s death. Killed at 16.45 in the woods above Soupir, on the banks of the river Aisne, for many years he was just a name in my family history. As a plan materialised to mark the centenary of his death by organising a visit to his grave in Soupir Communal Cemetery for as many of his descendants who wished to come, I felt I should find out more about the man he was. After all it is hard to ‘remember’ someone one does not know and who died many years before his surviving descendants were born.
It soon became apparent that Billy had been widely commended for his outstanding bravery and courage, and that he was greatly missed by not only by his senior, and brother, officers, but also by his men. However the descriptions of his behaviour under fire, and of his death, appeared to show a man who seemed careless of danger. Indeed shortly before he died he was heard instructing his men not to ‘bob’ as shells and bullets would not hit them unless their name and address was on them!
I was left with a surprising question, was Billy actually brave, or merely reckless? Indeed I was being made to think about the very nature of bravery. To answer my question I realised I had to learn more about the man.
I am extremely fortunate, as whilst many of the riches that once belonged to the Tyssen-Amherst (Cecil) family have been long since dispersed, large quantities of their papers do still exist. Although some still remain within the family, many more are in museum archives and university libraries in cities as far apart as Oxford, and Toronto.
Perhaps my most prized resource however, is the collection of letters lovingly kept first by Billy’s mother, and later by his wife, which as I write, are piled high in front of me on my desk.
These run from his first letter written from Burghley House, Stamford, when he was just five years old, to his final letter written just before he was killed.
It is a strange and wonderful thing to know the thoughts of this man as he grew from child to man, and from son to lover, husband and father. Sometimes I feel I know him better, though long dead, than any one living. Yet of course I have to be aware that letters are written for many reasons. Maybe the intention of the writer is to inform, but it may be to soothe, to dissemble, to placate, to enchant, or even to mislead. It is therefore essential to try and place letters in context and by doing so I will hope to find the truth behind Billy’s words.
Through these letters, along with family papers, and his mother’s travel journals, I am discovering who Billy really was. I am unearthing an extraordinary story of an extraordinary family. This story appears to contain all the elements a great story should have.
There is the splendid setting of Didlington Hall, which was indeed a truly ‘golden world’, a cast of brilliant and colourful characters, travels and adventure in Egypt, tales of royalty, and a passionate and desperate love story. There are also other ingredients useful in the creation of powerful drama, such as a suitably ‘evil’ villain, bankruptcy, tragedy, and unexpected death.
It is this story that made Billy the man he was. Every one of the millions of men who died in the Great War had a name, a family, and a story. This will be Billy’s story.