Remembrance – From Ypres to the Aisne

As November draws to a close, I realise just what an extraordinary month it has been. There have been so many acts of Remembrance and some of them have been truly thought provoking. I wanted to go to see the poppies at the Tower of London but failed dismally.

Billy's GraveI console myself with the thought that I don’t feel that I have neglected the past this autumn. Two years ago I sat in church on Remembrance Sunday and realised I had never visited my grandfather’s grave. As anyone who has been interested

Billy Cecil
Billy Cecil

enough to spend time on this website previously may already know, he died on the Aisne in 1914. It was then that the plan formed to get as many of Billy’s descendants to his grave on the centenary of his death as I could. In the end there were 23 family and friends in Soupir Communal Cemetery in September this year.

We had spent the previous few days following the route of the Grenadier Guards as they retreated from Mons with Sir Douglas Haig’s I Corps south towards the Marne. There were several notable moments directly related to Billy. One was at Landrecies, south west of the vast Mormal Forest which the British thought was impenetrable – but the Germans marched straight through!!! So the town was not quite so protected by the forest as had been thought… the ‘Landrecies Affair’ was indeed quite an affair!

The Memorial Arch, Landrecies
The Memorial Arch, Landrecies

Following a 28 mile march in blistering heat the Grenadier and Coldstream guards arrived in Landrecies hoping for nothing more than a decent billet and a quiet night. However as it turned out the Germans had had the same idea and were also heading for Landrecies for a decent billet and a quiet night. Needless to say a fierce fight developed and it was not long before the Coldstream’s machine guns were being overrun.

The Germans flooded out of the 'impenetrable' Mormal Forest
The Germans flooded out of the ‘impenetrable’ Mormal Forest

At this point Billy, as the Grenadiers’ Machine Gun Officer, was ordered up to assist the Coldstream. The official history The Grenadier Guards in the Great War – Volume I describes what happened – ‘The machine-guns of the Grenadiers were moved up to help the Coldstream and came into action at a very critical moment. They were largely instrumental in repelling the enemy’s attack, and were well handled by Lieutenant the Hon W. Cecil, who was slightly wounded.’  Colonel Fielding (Coldstream) was more effusive, describing Billy’s handling of his guns as ‘magnificent’. Colonel Fielding continued saying ‘During all the assaults he stood up under heavy fire  from high explosive shells and directed the fire as if on manoeuvres. He was wounded in the knee but continued fighting…’

I suppose one of the things I wanted to try and discover on our journey through France was an answer to the question – why was he so careless of his own safety? In the ‘Great War’ the attrition rate amongst junior officers was proportionately higher than for any other rank. Trained ‘to play the game’ on the sports fields of English public schools, and inspired by the adventures of their warrior heroes of ancient Greece and Rome, they seemed determined to show no fear, and to lead from the front – and time after time they paid the ultimate price for doing so. Billy was lucky in Landrecies – but it seems almost inevitable that his luck would run out.

Billy's machine guns faced the enemy on a bare road with no entrenchments
Billy’s machine guns faced the enemy on a bare road with no entrenchments

However, while we were following Billy and his Grenadiers, we were also uncovering the stories of several other soldiers connected with our group. There was Lieutenant John Lee-Steere (Grenadier Guards) who died at the hands of a sniper at Klein Zillebeke on 17th November 1914. He was just 19 and a dearly loved, only son. He is one of  just a few soldiers to have a different style of headstone, paid for by his parents. John was buried in the village of Zillebeke in what has come to be known as the ‘Aristocrats Cemetery.’ John Lee-Steere's headstone

It was a particularly poignant part of our journey when we visited not just the cemeteries but the places where ‘our’ soldiers fought fell. The cemetery at Zillebeke was moving enough, but standing in the field where the Grenadiers had been dug in a hundred years earlier, and looking up at the woods…

Looking up the incline to the woods where the German guns were sited
Looking up the incline from the Grenadiers’ trenches to the woods where the German guns were sited

so peaceful now, but then in the freezing mud and cold of the trenches, with the barrels of German guns blazing at him, it must have been a terrifying place for, the far too young, John.

Another soldier whose grave we visited was Captain Stuart Keppel Reid. He had seen service in GallipoIMG_1942li, Gaza, Egypt and Palestine, survived numerous battles, and had been awarded the M.C. It was 1918 when the Royal Sussex crossed the Mediterranean and having landed in Marseille they soon found themselves entrained and heading north to the Western Front and Ypres. Home and safety must have seemed almost within touching distance when they arrived in Belgium. Maybe Stuart had some leave, maybe he even dared hope the war would be over and he would survive – after all he has survived so much already. Unfortunately the Germans broke through near Soissons in July 1918. Stuart soon found himself on another train heading south to help push the Germans back. On 29th July 1918, however Stuart died, having been wounded a few days earlier.

While I am, of course, sad that Billy did not survive the war, to have fought for four years and then to die when the war is edging to a close, seems even more cruel. Stuart was buried in Vauxbuin Cemetery.

The final soldier whose grave we visited was Captain Cecil ‘Johnnie’ Ker 1st Battalion Bedfordshire regiment. He was killed at Missy, on the Aisne on 15th September, just the day before Billy. The Bedfordshire War Dairy describes the action that day as a FIASCO in capital letters! It seems however that Johnnie Ker wasn’t killed in the fiasco… a diarist of the day reported… ‘I went up to the front to see what was doing in an interval and was quite close to Johnnie Ker who was sitting on a bank. He got up and stretched himself and yawned saying that he was tired of it all and wanted a good sleep when a sniper shot him through the head and he died at once. Almost at the same time, if not with the same bullet, H. Courtenay was hit in the eye but not killed. It was an awful blow losing poor little Johnnie’.

 Vendresse Cemetery looks out over the Aisne valley
Vendresse Cemetery looks out over the Aisne valley

Such an unnecessary death due to a moment of carelessness shows the strain the past few weeks had put on the British. Weeks of retreat, marching, fighting, then marching again… followed by some hope that the war had turned at last only to find themselves halted in front of the wooded hills of the Aisne valley, had taken their toll. The men were exhausted, and Johnnie got careless and for that he paid with his life. Vendresse Cemetery where he is buried, is one of the most beautiful we visited, so I can only hope he is at peace there now.

Our journey from Ypres to Soupir is one I will never forget. It was memorable for so many reasons, and just the fun of spending time with family and friends that do not spend enough time together, was a joy. It made it even more special that we travelled with a purpose. There were lives that deserved to be remembered, and we took great pleasure, mixed with sadness of course, in the remembering.

I don’t know that I have yet discovered what drove these men to ‘do their duty’ with such flair and bravery. They all had huge courage, but no doubt they had tremendous fear too. I am just proud to have got to know more about all of them.  And as for Billy – I suppose I just wish he had survived, so many things in our family would have been different if he had. Losing him was losing a vital link in the chain that bound the Amhersts together. I also wish he had survived, because I would have loved to have known him… Strangely though through his letters, and through May’s journals I feel I do know him, really quite well – perhaps better than I know many people who are alive today.

When Worlds Collide – How Weird Is That?

When worlds collide it can be spine tingling… Today I had just such a moment. As anyone who has even glanced at this blog before will know I have sheep. Cotswold sheep… from the Cotswolds. A historic aThe Queenford Flocknd rare breed they may be and one that I happened to take on because their wool, their upturned mouths which make them look like they are smiling, their crazy forelocks, placid nature and their ridiculous hippo like size, well, just appealed to me. When I am not involved with sheep, or fiddling with Nile Cat I try to get on with my family biography. Cotswold Sheep and Biography are two completely different worlds… at least so I thought until today.1915 F

It was only when I went to collect some sheep in Hampshire and got chatting about the history of the Cotswold Sheep Society and I asked ‘Why Cotswolds?’ that the owner explained his great grandfather had been a member of the CSS and it had seemed right to keep them in the family. He showed me a page from the 1915 Flock Book and commented there were quite a few members of Council who came from Norfolk. We had discussed earlier that I’d been brought up there, so I was asked if any of the names meant anything to me…. I looked and there it was in black and white… ‘Captain C. A. Fountaine, Narford Hall, Swaffham, Norfolk. Elected 1915 – To Retire 1917‘.

It really was the strangest feeling reading that, indeed even heart stopping… Mary Fountaine was William Amhurst Tyssen-Amherst’s mother, and William (my great great grandfather) was born at Narford Hall. Narford Hall was just some sixteen miles from Didlington and for many years the two families were closely entwined. Sadly, when financial ruin hit the Amhersts in 1906, a large chunk of Fountaine money went too. There was a court case and I don’t imagine the  cousins saw much of each other after that.

But it does feel weird to know that there were Cotswold Sheep at Narford Hall in deepest, darkest Norfolk, and that a cousin of mine was a member of the Society of which I am currently Chairman, and that he too served his time on Council as I do nearly a hundred years later. Why did I choose Cotswolds… maybe it was just coincidence or maybe there is indeed more in heaven and earth than most of us can possibly dream of…?!

Anyway there is now a whole new field (!) of research for me to explore… and one question particularly intrigues me… what were all these Cotswold sheep doing in East Anglia? There were flocks near Bury St Edmunds, Fakenham, two near Swaffham, Thetford, and Norwich. In fact in 1915 there were more members on Council from Norfolk and Suffolk than there were from Gloucestershire. If any reader of this blog can shed any light on this – I would love to hear from you!


Exploring the Grenadiers’ Regimental Archives

We are now in early February and I have no idea where the last few months have gone – and soon we begin lambing. The deadline for Billy’s biography is July – so I think I’d better get a move on!

The 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards leaving Chelsea Barracks for war. 12th August 1914
The 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards leaving Chelsea Barracks for war (12th August 1914).

I did manage some research a few weeks ago and took a trip to the Grenadiers’ Regimental Archives in Wellington Barracks. I spent a fascinating hour or two inspecting some wonderful photo albums and reading a selection of diaries. I was made extremely welcome and afterwards felt I had got to know another side of Billy’s life  a great deal better. I am so grateful to the Grenadiers for allowing me to use some of these photos in the biography. The one I have included in this post I find particularly moving. What was going through the Grenadiers’ minds as they marched so smartly off the parade ground towards the station where they would ‘entrain’ for Southampton, where the SS Cawdor Castle was waiting to transport them to France?

They were professional soldiers, either currently serving or reservists. They were all well-trained, if not all ‘battle’ fit (the reservists could have left the army up to nine years earlier). They believed it was their duty to fight for their country, and the general feeling was that the war would be a short-lived affair and over by Christmas. What none of them would would have imagined was that by the beginning of December 1914, as the the First Battle of Ypres (October/November) drew to a close, only 140 men and 4 officers of the 2nd Battalion would still be alive.

The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War.

One thing I have learned recently through my research is the stupidity of the often repeated comment that the British infantry in WWI were ‘lions led by donkeys’ -particularly if it is applied to junior officers – as it is in ‘Black Adder Goes Forth’.

‘Six Weeks’ by John Lewis-Stempel is an immensely moving book. It shows clearly how these young officers cared for their men and worked tirelessly for them. They led from the front. This is why the average length of survival for one of these young subalterns was indeed six weeks, while many of their men would survive up to three months!

All these statistics are deeply shocking – why did any of them have to die? One answer was that they knew there was no choice. If they didn’t fight- then what would have stopped the German Army marching into London? They were certain no treaty with Germany would be worth the paper it was written on. If Germany could tear up the treaty proclaiming Belgium’s neutrality it could tear up any other treaty too!

All very thought provoking – but time is pressing ever onwards and I guess I’d better get back to work!


Rescuing the Archaeology of Western Aswan

It is so strange when past and present come together and you find yourself doing something you never expected to do, because of something that happened over a 100 years ago! In this particular case it is the tragedy that is now engulfing Egypt, which was the catalyst for me being asked to give a short talk about my great-grandmother’s excavations in West Aswan, in Horsham yesterday.Study Day Poster

With the country in turmoil, few tourists are making their way to Egypt; a country which relies on the tourist industry.   The population is now either angry, or desperate. Museums have been looted and artefacts stolen or destroyed. Tombs have been illegally excavated and emptied of anything of value.

The sadness is not just the loss of fascinating and unique objects, and all they can tell us about the past, but the Egyptians are destroying their own future. The tourists will not come back if there is nothing to see, and the magic that was Egypt has been destroyed.Cecil Tombs

The destruction of heritage is happening throughout Egypt. Western Aswan is no exception. The tombs that May and Billy excavated in 1901 and 1903/04, but which are now lost, (hopefully only temporarily – May was great at excavating and drawing plans of the individual tombs – even taking photos – but she never published a map as to where the tombs actually were!) could soon suffer the same fate. So it seemed right that I should do something to try and preserve the Egypt they loved!

And it was fun too – the Sussex Egyptian Society made me very welcome – and were polite enough to say they enjoyed my talk – so altogether a special day…!!!

The Admiral & the Egyptian Notebook

'The Sphinx taken on the spot, 1811' It is very strange how things suddenly slot into place when you are undertaking research. Ever since I began this project I have known that the Admiral must have spent time in Egypt while he was Captain of HMS Espoir. I have  his ship’s log which has just one entry written in Alexandria. And research has thrown up no official connection to Egypt. Yet family history has told me he became good friends with Muhammad Ali, Khedive of Egypt and undertook the job of supervising the building of the Egyptian navy’s first corvette in or around 1810/11. Indeed the Khedive was supposed to have been so pleased with Captain Mitford that he rewarded him by giving him ‘Cleopatra’s needle’ (I think he gave it to many people, safe in the knowledge that none of them would actually be able to take it away!) It was however eventually removed, of course (not by the Admiral!) and ‘our’ needle now stands on the Embankment in London!

But today proof arrived miraculously through the post, along with some other papers. It is just a tiny notebook, but you can imagine how thrilled I was to see this image which shows quite clearly that the Admiral was in Egypt at just the right time!!

Sir Henry Cecil and Echoes of the Past

Last week the world of horse racing lost one of its greatest stars with the death of Henry Cecil. The papers were full of comments describing him as ‘a genius’, ‘the toast of Epsom and Royal Ascot’  and ‘one of the most influential and successful racehorse trainers of all times’. And it did make me think about how horses run in the Amherst Cecil blood. I remembered coming across this photo amongst Billy’s letters. Billy grew up to be an excellent rider, and particularly passionate about his hunting. How proud Billy would have been of his grandson Henry. In fact a passion for horses and racing runs further back in the family as May, Billy’s mother was renowned as an excellent horsewoman. Didlington Hall even  possessed its own racecourse on which, Phosphorus winner of the 1837 Derby had trained.

Billy on Horseback
Billy on Horseback

Henry did indeed have an extraordinary career which included  winning The Derby four times and The Oaks eight times. His was a life full of brilliance, mixed with despair – and maybe it was this mix that made him so popular with the masses of race goers. The death of his twin brother David, and his own fight against cancer must have provided some of the darkest moments, while the arrival of Frankel, ‘star of stars’, must have been one of the brightest.

When I heard of Henry’s death last week I couldn’t help thinking how immensely sad it was that not only did Henry never know his grandfather, he never knew his father either.

History can strangely repetitive. When Billy was killed on the Aisne in 1914, at the age of twenty eight, he left behind my father, William who was two years old and, Henry who was just six months. For both boys being fatherless must have been very hard, but for Henry it seems it was a tragedy. He was completely charming, immensely popular, and totally wild. Always after excitement, he was quick to join the newly formed Parachute Regiment. He was fatally wounded in 1942 in the Battle of Oudna in North Africa. He, like Billy, was twenty eight years old when he died. He left behind him four young sons, Strongbow (known as Bow), James and the twins, David and Henry. The twins were in fact not even born until a few days after the news of his death had reached their mother, Rohays.

I am extremely sad that Henry can’t be with us when we visit Billy’s grave next year to commemorate the centenary of his death. But there is no doubt that he will be there in our thoughts.




I realise how remiss I’ve been with this Blog – it’s like nothing has happened for months – which isn’t true. Lambing is long since over and some of the lambs are looking pretty huge already – like the ewe lamb below. As for Mum – it appears she might not be able to see where she’s going – however – weather permitting the shearer will be here tomorrow, and so that particular problem will be solved! Not that the shearer will remove her forelock – that is not allowed – a Cotswold must keep their fringes at all times – even if it does mean that after shearing they look like goats with mops on their heads! But shearing is a good time for me to give her forelock a tidying trim!


I have at last managed to get The Nile Cat to a state where I feel I can start looking for a publisher. This is quite daunting  and only time will tell how it all goes – however I am at last getting better at writing a synopsis – at least I hope so.

The real challenge is now to switch off from The Nile Cat for a while and focus on Billy – it is such a different project, and the deadline while self-imposed is tight – but not impossible – so it is back to WWI for me!

Sheep Thoughts

'Mum says this tastes okay - what do you think?'
‘Mum says this tastes okay – what do you think?’

Lambing means not much sleep and  a good deal of stress. It’s all that responsibility I guess. Anyway I thought I’d put up some photos of some of those cute moments that make it all worthwhile!

I never planned on being a midwife! Or a nurse. So finding myself in both roles, even if my patients are sheep, is pretty strange.

Over the last few weeks as I filled water buckets, freshened the pens with clean straw, brought in the food buckets, hand-fed a ewe who had survived a particularly traumatic delivery of her lambs (by the vet, not me in this case!!!) and wielded syringes of pain killers and antibiotics to other ewes who had had to have some lambing assistance, I couldn’t help wondering how any ‘real’ nurses, could ever be as completely blind to their patients’ needs as has recently been reported in the press – after all my patients can’t tell me what they need,  but I work it out. Their patients could talk – but those nurses weren’t even pretending to listen!!! Of course, I know the vast majority of nurses are dedicated, caring and immensely hard-working.

'Mum makes the best bed!'
‘Mum makes the best bed!’

But I have other roles to play too – ‘adoption facilitator’ for one – this was down to a ewe called Francesca. Francesca is a rather beautiful ewe, with fantastic wool and not so fantastic ‘attitude’! This year she had two lambs, a nice largish ewe lamb and a smaller ram lamb. She fell immediately in love with both her lambs, and was a brilliant mother for at least two hours.

Then something happened – I don’t know what! But all of a sudden she decided that the ewe lamb was hers, and the ram lamb was… well, not! And there was nothing I could do to persuade her otherwise. I tried everything – spraying both lambs with delicious vanilla scented musk so they smelt the same, and even tying her up so she couldn’t sniff either lamb, on the basis she would forget which lamb she had decided wasn’t hers.

'Those are the strangest looking lambs!'
‘Those are the strangest looking lambs!’

Francesca is many things – but forgetful she is not. In the end she fed the ram lamb, but only under sufferance. I knew the moment I put her out in the field  she would turn on him. So another solution had to be found – and by this time he had a name – Milo.

I could bottle feed Milo, but a single bottle-fed lamb is a very lonely lamb, and it is SO much better if they have a mother to keep them fed, warm and away from danger, in our case the river. So the only real answer would be adoption. But for that I needed a ewe which had been scanned as carrying just a single lamb to give birth within two or three days, for the adoption to have a chance to work.

'I wonder what's out there?'
‘I wonder what’s out there?’

So one day passed, then another, and another – by the fifth day I had almost given up hope as Milo would soon be too old for adoption – he wouldn’t bond with his new mother. Currently he was surviving, his mother hadn’t actually killed him, but she ignored his bleats, and would lie nuzzling her ewe lamb, leaving Milo on his own in the corner of the pen.

Then at last an older ewe, Genevieve, scanned as carrying a single lamb,  was in the process of lambing. There was no time to waste – as timing in these matters is everything! I had to get Milo wet with Genevieve’s birth fluids and place him in front of her, before her own lamb was born. I also had to tie his legs (gently but firmly) as the fact that Milo at a week old was as agile as an olympic athlete might give the game away! Luckily Genevieve is a maternal sort of ewe, and although I could swear she gave me a knowing look when I plopped Milo in front of her, she obligingly began to lick him dry. When her own ewe lamb arrived a few seconds later she licked both, and never looked back.  Genevieve is a brilliant mother to both lambs and Milo is thriving.  Adoption is truly wonderful when it works!!!

Lamb in a basket with a difference!
Lamb in a basket with a difference!

Lambing is a time when writing creatively seems impossible – tiredness does not lead to imaginative thought – rather I sit down at my computer, open a document and… unsurprisingly, fall asleep. So not a great time for getting on with a writing project.

Yet I think this raw contact with life and death does feed the creative brain. And there is always drama in the lambing barn – whether it’s clearing a lamb’s mouth and nose so it can take its first breath,  watching an exhausted ewe licking her lamb dry, or supervising an adoption, like Milo’s. But I’m quite glad it is ten and a half months before it all starts again. Now I’m off to bed for an uninterrupted night’s sleep!

Admiral Mitford and Madeira

I have this week discovered yet again what an amazing research tool the internet is! Through the Amherst website I have met a distant, but most distinguished, cousin as Hugh is the 37th Squire of Mitford. A remarkable family that held the estate of Mitford in Northumberland for nearly a 1000 years – and the main branch of the family that gave rise to the notorious ‘Mitford girls’, among many other rather splendid characters.

The Shearwater off Madeira
The Shearwater off Madeira

Unfortunately the Northumberland lot were not very good at producing heirs when they were needed, so the lines of inheritance got rather convoluted leading in the end to the family’s down turn in fortune and the sad sale of the last acres of the surviving estate in the 90’s.

Anyway, Hugh is as deeply involved with researching his ancestors, as I am mine – and as our researches both include Admiral Robert Mitford (my great, great, great grandfather) he very kindly sent me the following entry in an auction catalogue of a few years ago: 

A BOX of decanters and glasses which once belonged to one of Castle Morpeth’s most famous seafaring men is to go under the hammer in Newcastle on March 12. Dating to the early 19th century and contained in a rustic metal-bound oak case, the drinking set owned by Admiral Robert Mitford, of Mitford Castle, is to be sold by auctioneers Anderson & Garland …’

The entry goes on to explain that the Admiral was supposed to have been detailed by Queen Victoria to collect a consignment of Madeira, (from Madeira!!!) and then sail it home to England via the Equator – anyone with any sense of direction might think that this was not the most direct route – but apparently shaking and heating the madeira wine ‘improved it’ – so what could be more sensible than loading up a ship with wine and sending it down to the equator for plenty of natural heating and shaking!

This piece of information sent me back to check out the Admiral’s sketchbook – he was an immensely talented artist – and while the sketchbook is not in great condition, the paintings are good to superb!!! And I came across this little drawing captioned  ‘A Shearwater shot off the back of a turtle off Madeira‘ – who knows if this was painted on the trip described above – but it is really nice to conjecture that it was!!!

While I do feel rather bad at the sad demise of the shearwater and hope the turtle didn’t end up as soup  (I’m not confident of that!) – pre photos, the only way you could get a creature to stay still long enough to record it properly, was to kill it, skin it, and preserve it till you got home – then you could stuff it and draw it. Apparently the Admiral’s daughter was a renowned taxidermist – she was obviously taught by an expert!!





Last week we spent the night in Soissons. We were trying out the hotel we might stay in for the family visit to Billy’s grave in 2014. It felt incredibly strange to be there looking out of our hotel room across the roofs to the hills that rise on the other side of the Aisne.

A view from Soissons across the Aisne
A view over Soissons to the hills beyond the Aisne

The town was extraordinarily  quiet – it was that time between Christmas and New Year when nothing seems to happen – everyone is waiting for the main event I suppose – in this case the arrival of 2013.

But I found I was wondering how unbelievably different it must have felt to be there in the dying days of summer in 1914. There was no wind and the air was stiflingly hot. Soisson must have been a cauldron of fear as the Soissonaise looked at the tattered remains of the BEF gathering in the streets and boulevards of the town, and then looked up at the wooded hills that form the northern bank of the Aisne. They must have wondered just how long it would be before the flood of German soldiers began pouring out of them.

Billy arrived in Soissons at around noon on 30th August. The Grenadiers had been marching for days in the dust and intense heat. The men had apparently been grumbling about their sore feet and the endless marching in ‘the wrong direction’ but the 2nd Battalion was immensely proud that not one man had fallen out.  The Grenadiers were then ordered to retrace their footsteps back across the Aisne to the village of Pasley, which lies 2 miles north of Soissons, where they dug in and spent what remained of the night watching out for the approaching Germans. There was some hope that perhaps the BEF might make a stand at the Aisne and that the Retreat would be over.

 The Cathedral, Soissons, and the Pl. Fernand Marquigny
The Cathedral, Soissons, and the Pl. Fernand Marquigny

But the 31st just brought yet more orders to continue the Retreat, and so Billy would have returned to Soissons and then headed on south west towards Villars- Cotteret where the Grenadiers would have to face one of their toughest challenges so far.

It was market day when we were in Soissons last week. As we wandered amongst the stalls and inspected the wonderful displays of vegetables, bread, cheeses, etc., it was almost impossible to believe life there could ever have been so very different. When Billy was in Soissons, it was so early in the war, the town would have looked in parts, much as it does today – but later of course, being on the front line a good deal of it was reduced to rubble – it is really extraordinary how mankind does rebuild after such terrible events – but when we looked carefully at the buildings, the bullet holes, and shrapnel scars were easy enough to spot!

I imagine that by the time Billy reached Soissons his world must have shrunk to encompass little more than his own and his men’s survival. Home, Gladys, the boys, and his whole previous existence must have seemed like they belonged to someone else in another life.