This Remembrance Sunday will have a different feel for me, for I have suddenly discovered that I will have a personal interest in that day. I always knew that my paternal grandfather, while serving in the army, was killed in a road accident on Shooters Hill, Plumstead, in South London. But I knew nothing more.
Then ‘out of the blue’ came an email from a professional genealogist working on behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC):
“CWGC has asked me to trace families of a number of soldiers who died during or shortly after the First World War. One such soldier is Gunner Alfred George Beasley, Royal Garrison Artillery who died on 13th December 1917 in a road accident.
My research has led me to understand that he was married to Kathleen Lydia Brady, and that their son, George Raymond Beasley was born on 10th October 1916 in Hackney, London. Following Gunner Beasley’s death his widow remarried George Murray, and George Raymond adopted the surname Beasley-Murray to honour both his father and step-father.
Gunner Beasley’s name was missed from the registers at CWGC. I am not sure why. Perhaps because he died in a traffic accident rather than on active service. CWGC has been made aware of this, and his name is being added to a new memorial at Brookwood Military Cemetery, Woking, to be unveiled shortly. CWGC would like to invite relatives to attend a service of commemoration, hence asking me to research his family tree.”
A certificate containing further details was attached to the email:
“In memory of Gunner Alfred George Beasley. 130329, Anti-Aircraft Section, Royal Garrison Artillery who died on 13 December 1917. Age 27. Husband of Kathleen Lydia Beasley of Vicarage Lane, Stratford. Remembered with Honour.”
“Gunner Beasley”! Goodness, I had no idea my paternal grandfather was a gunner, let alone that he belonged to an anti-aircraft section. Further hasty research revealed that “With guns that had not been designed for the purpose and appropriate equipment late in being developed, the Anti-Aircraft section was perhaps more of a deterrent than an actually effective weapon. …. Training was all too brief, and methods experimental…. One source says that, for example, in the busy week ending 27 April 1918, a total of 10 enemy aircraft were shot down and another 5 damaged, of a total of 2039 engaged.”
Suddenly my grandfather, who died when my father was just over a year old, has become a person, and not just a name. As a result on this coming Remembrance Sunday there will be a sense of particular poignancy for me. True, he was but one of some 10 million military personnel who lost their lives in the First World War, but his death profoundly changed the life of his widow and his son. True, he did not lose his life in battle, but then only two-thirds who died lost their lives in actual conflict (most of the remaining third lost their lives as a result from disease and the terrible flu pandemic of 1918).
In the same week on receiving this email I was sent to review War Cries: Military Prayers from Barracks to Battlefield (SPCK, London 2015), compiled by Mark Davidson, the first public collection of British military prayers. The very first prayer in this volume is ‘the soldiers’ prayer’ composed August 1914 by the Chaplain-General to the Armed Forces, John Taylor Smith, and given to all members of the British Expeditionary Force: “Almighty and most merciful Father, forgive me my sins; grant me thy peace; give me thy power; bless me in life and death, for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.” A further 224 prayers then follow, including a modern prayer from the Commando Prayer Book: “Lord, as we remember with sadness the horrors of war, help us to work for a better understanding between races and nations. Open our eyes to see our own part in discord and aggression between peoples, forgive us our pride and divisions, and renew in us the search for peace so that trust may replace suspicion, friendship replace fear, and your spirit of reconciliation be known among us all. Amen.”
It is never easy knowing how to pray in war. Perhaps above all we need to remember the words of Abraham Lincoln quoted at the very beginning of the book: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right”.