16 March 2016
This isn’t the glorious tale of war – it’s the memory of the very real effect it had on individuals.
We’ve seen photos such as the one that inspired Andrew Tatham’s book time and again: a cluster of soldiers (in this instance Army officers), in relaxed yet orderly rows; uniform, smart; buttons, shiny; moustached faces looking out at us – decent, tidy, fit and healthy.
Andrew’s photo shows 46 men from the 8th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment, with his great-grandfather – their commanding officer – seated centre.
So far, so good, but – as with anything related to the First World War – there’s never anything ordinary about it, and even that which is familiar to us often has an unbearable poignancy, seeing it as we do through the lens of hindsight.
It was this desire to find out more about the men shown in the photo, to bring their stories to life, to remember them, that led to Andrew’s 20-year exploration of each of man’s past – his ancestors, his descendants and relatives, and his war experiences of course. ‘What do you see when you look at this group photograph?’ asks Andrew. ‘Do you see soldiers ready to fight or victims of war? Who was thinking about them as they sat there?’ On his quest to tell the full human story of each of these men Andrew has tracked down hundreds more photos of the men and their families, and unearthed memorabilia, letters and journals, which are woven into the account he relates.
This isn’t the glorious tale of war – it’s the memory of the very real effect it had on individuals. It’s the story of Thomas Allen, who survived being shot, bayoneted and gassed – and went spare when his son suggested joining the Army. It’s the anguish of James Barrow’s widow who was furious with him for signing up, and who never once visited his grave. It’s of a baby born four days after her father was killed, and of a father who died, heartbroken at the death of his own son, and it’s of a man (like many others) who ‘always held onto a guilt that he had survived when so many others had not’.
But despite all these tragedies, Andrew’s account is somehow extraordinarily positive. It’s clearly a labour of love, and is the result of him tracing a
remarkable 46 family trees, which led to him being ‘inspired by some extraordinary life stories that showed that individuals can make a difference even as the world is going mad around them’. And he advocates that we too go out into the world and make a difference for the better.
ISBN: 9789090292786. RRP £20.80 softback (inc UK p&p). In Flanders Field Museum. Visit www.groupphoto.co.uk