The Price of Peace
This year Britain commemorates the 90th anniversary of the Armistice. As the family memories fade of that conflict, the act of remembrance for younger generations becomes more of a challenge.
BBC London's Special Correspondent Kurt Barling writes how it is still possible to trace the stories of men like his Great-Uncle Alfred who was killed during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Like many London families, we Barlings have our own Great War folklore. I grew up hearing stories from my grandfather of his older brother who went to war in 1914 but never came back. There were no pictures, no artefacts, just anecdotes and a deep sadness for the older brother lost so young along with nearly a million others. 1.6 million men ended the war as casualties.
Setting out to make a remembrance film this year I turned to my Uncle Joe who was born in 1930. As the eldest sibling he was most likely to remember those who knew Alfred most.
Alfred Barling (behind) with his mother
It’s surprising how many families have no image of the relative they lost in the Great War. When I decided to look deeper into the course of Uncle Alfred’s war all the Barlings were urged to seek out some accidently cherished artefact connected to him.
Fortunately a cousin came up with a photo of a family wedding in 1910. Alfred was in it; a fresh faced 18 year-old. It’s strange how a picture, however old, infuses stories with real life. After more than 40 years of hearing the same story, it was a little uncanny to see a young man who resembled several of the current generation of male cousins.
This resemblance reinforced the sense that our family history, and who we are, is still touched by that conflict. I remember my own grandfather, who served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, decided not to join the army so he could avoid the fate that befell his brother.
But exactly what was that fate? The first clues lie in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records. These show gunner Alfred Barling died on the 9th of August 1916 and is buried in the Ovillers Military Cemetery close to the town of Albert in Northern France.
Alfred Barling's grave at Oviller
Many of the military records from the Great War were lost during a Luftwaffe bombing raid which destroyed a section of the National Archive during the Second World War. Alfred’s were unfortunately lost, but as a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery there was a good chance that the Royal Artillery Museum (RAM) in Woolwich could help. As a regimental museum it has a surprising number of records of former soldiers and I was in luck.
Firstly, the RAM turned up his service record card which showed he had arrived in France in September 1915. Turning ordinary workers into soldiers took many months. As a London railwayman Alfred, like so many others, obviously heeded Lord Kitchener’s call and joined up early in the Winter of 1914.
The curator at the RAM, Mark Smith, had also found a rarer document in the regimental archive; the handwritten diary for “C” Battery of the 62nd Brigade. The base level of organisation in the Artillery is a Battery of between 75-100 gunners. Gunner Alfred Barling was in “C” Battery and this document would begin to get us close to the “what, why, where, when and how” he was killed.
On June 17th, two weeks before the most disastrous day in British military history my Uncle Alfred had marched with his comrades into Albert just a few kilometres from the frontline. Albert is now a sleepy town in which last week I had a couple of pleasant beers with my cameraman. In June 1916 it was the heaving hub for getting a million troops along the frontline.
C Battery diary
The diary records that on July 1st: “The attack was launched along the whole front from Gommecourt to the Somme whence the attack was carried on southwards by the French.”
The diary makes it clear it was a difficult day; the full horror of the battle quickly becoming apparent in the neat handwriting. “The 12th infantry passed through looking fit and cheery to the lilt of a song of which the refrain was “Back in original line”. Poor chaps over 4000 did not see the next evening, though the gallant effort of the Division to take la Boiselle and Ovillers after the failure of 8th Division will go down to history.”
Intense as this battle was Uncle Alfred was to survive a few more weeks yet. The Battery was given new orders to move to a new position in support of Australian attacks on German strongholds including the one at a place called Mouquet Farm. The guns were moved to a place called Authuille Wood.
Ovillers Cemetery in France
All these place names and locations remain. I probably found my visit to the Somme all the more discomforting because of this. To see the limited space into which so many millions of men were poured to a certain death somehow conjures up the horror of what Uncle Alfred must have witnessed.
Today the Australian memorial to its battle dead sits 400m from where the Australians launched a further wave of attacks on 9th August. You can see the battlefields quite clearly from a viewing point built on a German fortification, which the soldiers named Gibraltar because it was almost impregnable. In fact from this point you can see why the slaughter was so complete.
German machine gunners could see everything for miles around. The British and Australian assault moved less than 1 kilometre in a month. Tens of thousands perished. My Uncle Alfred died during a week-long battle in the fifth week of the Battle of the Somme, where the advance was no more than 600m.
Mark Smith, of the RAM estimates, that my Uncle Alfred was deployed alongside these Australian infantrymen as part of a forward observation party for the “C” Battery guns which were supporting their attempted assault. In the Great War there were no radios on the battlefields, telephone wires were usually cut up and the only way of redirecting artillery fire was to get runners to relay information across the battlefield. It was a hazardous job.
They are solemn places. At a certain point close to Albert on the current day Somme you can make out the 1916 front line by a line of battlefield cemeteries. They were often started around medical posts, by supply or ammunition dumps or at the end of communication trenches linked to the frontline.
In each one you are struck by an overwhelming sense of folly that so many young men’s lives were wasted for so little gain. But little prepares you for the monumental memorial to the British and French missing at the Battle of the Somme at Thiepval.
Because the battle lasted so long many of the dead could not be collected until the following year in 1917. By then tens of thousands of bodies in no mans land had been all but lost for good by the ceaseless pounding of artillery from both sides. Thiepval is a memorial to over 72,000 of the missing.
The scale of the slaughter meant that by the war’s end on the 11th November 1918 there could have been virtually no family who had not lost a relative in the conflict. So complete was the disaster that it became very easy to raise the money needed to erect memorials all across the country.
But 90 years on it is undoubtedly a huge challenge to remember the price paid for peace. Our own family has its folklore, but even we had no collective awareness until a few weeks ago that Uncle Alfred is commemorated here in London.
Manor Gardens Memorial
The archivist at the National Archive of War Memorials was able to locate through their database two memorials on which he is remembered. At the memorial for Islingtonians in Manor Gardens the names of over 1300 men are recorded on what was the entrance to the Royal Northern Hospital in Holloway. About a mile away his name is also recorded on the war memorial at St Anne’s Church Highgate.
There was one other part of my Uncle Alfred’s story that I wanted to resolve. In 1913 he had married Rose. What had happened to her? So many widows never recovered and Britain was left with a shortage of men for a generation.
Genealogist Sarah Minney looked through the comprehensive database that now exists for birth, deaths and marriages and discovered that Rose Barling had survived until 1960. In fact she had remarried a Joseph Winterton on Boxing Day in 1920 and there were surviving grandchildren.
The Winterton family have their own narrative of Uncle Alfred from their widowed grandmother Rose. As well as being a widow Rose had become a grieving mother. In the Spring of 1920 she’d lost her son aged five by Uncle Alfred.
Rose Barling in 1924
Incredibly they have photographs of Rose in the years following the war. Alfred’s story and that of his young family resurrected during this act of remembrance. The Barlings reconnected with their past. This small discovery shows that these ties of common experience bind the Barlings and the Wintertons together in some way. It reflects an important part of our national and City’s story.
My Uncle Alfred’s story must be typical for millions of families across Britain on Remembrance Day. We all know something, but often struggle to know how to commemorate.
For me, tracing my Uncle’s journey produced my own trail of discovery. In reconstructing his story and understanding the nature of his death I have gained a deeper awareness of the scale of the trauma that must have shrouded these islands in the aftermath of 1918.
In searching out the memorials on which he is commemorated in London and visiting his resting place in a field in Ovillers, France I have remembered Uncle Alfred and the millions of others who died as a colossal price for peace. In so doing I am keeping the story of their sacrifice alive.
last updated: 07/11/2008 at 12:11