A Different Sort of Remembrance
Remembrance Sunday will be, by necessity, a little different for all of us this year.
Instead of gathering on a cold bright morning at the war memorial on Terrace Green, just a few yards from our much-loved and now world-famous Tommy statue, we will be remembering the fallen, and all those who served, in a very different way.
As we contemplate what “Remembrance” means in the 21st century, I want to take you back to wartime Seaham, in the Autumn of 1943…
Seaham Harbour, November 1943
“No more bombs fell on Seaham Harbour.
The air raid sirens began to sound less frequently, but the fear they had heralded never quite dissipated. There were no more fevered rescue attempts, no more digging through rubble to locate whimpering children and no more mass burials.
The war had not gone away of course; the nature of it had simply changed. Public mourning gave way to private grief. Up and down the soot-blackened terraces, behind the net curtains and beyond the thresholds of daily-scrubbed doorsteps, individual tragedies continued to unfold as parents and wives opened dreaded telegrams with trembling fingers.
“Regret to inform you…”, that’s how they began, a few sparse words which delivered a punch to the chest and a blow to the soul from which the recipient would never recover. Very occasionally there would be good news: a son or husband reported as missing, presumed dead, would surface in a prisoner of war camp, and then a different kind of agony would begin.
In those dark days of the second half of 1943, there seemed no end in sight. At Number 7 Stavordale Street, yards from where the first air raid of the war had destroyed part of Ilchester Street almost exactly three years before, Mr and Mrs Rochester had received word of the death of their son John, a sergeant with the Royal Corps of Signals in Greece, on 18 August.
In the row of tiny miners’ cottages which made up Australia Street, Seaham Colliery, Mrs Sarah Malkin received notification of the death of her twenty-seven-year-old husband, William, a sergeant in the Green Howards, during the invasion of Sicily on 5 August. Just around the corner in Doctors Street, the Bullimore family mourned the loss of their son Jonathan, a ship’s cook on HMS Limbourne, sunk by Nazi U-boats in the English Channel, two days before his twenty-third birthday, on 23 October.
In Polemarch Street, on 5 November, the widowed Mrs Moss received a telegram to inform her of the death of her only son, Albert. Albert had served as an RAF flight engineer with 428 Squadron Bomber Command and had died following a bombing raid on Düsseldorf. Tragically, his aircraft had crashed in England, on the way home.
Sixty-three years before, an explosion at the local colliery had claimed the lives of 164 men and boys. Now, as then, there was barely a street which was untouched by grief and loss. For those families whose sons and husbands, brothers and fathers were held prisoner of war, the anguish never ended. Half alive, interminably distant, as ghosts within the walls of their own homes, their spiritual presence lingering, their physical presence longed for, with no hope of reunion. Letters and postcards flowed constantly between the imprisoned men and their families.
Lots of Seaham ladies of all ages had volunteered to send regular letters to the town’s prisoners of war. Spinster Miss Edie Threadkell, who lived in Caroline Street, wrote dozens. Amongst her personal effects is a postcard dated 12 August 1944, from a chap called Ernest Temple, written in pencil and bearing the stamp of the German military authorities. Edie was a friend of his parents who lived around the corner in Church Street and had known Ernest since he was a baby. Before he enlisted, Ernie had been the projectionist at the local cinema.
Just a card to let you know I’m still alive and kicking and think of you all occasionally. As you probably know, I’m a prisoner. I had a rough time in Italy, but things are better now thanks to the Red Cross. I met some Seaham men at this camp, so I have friends here.
Best Wishes, Ernie”
Mothers struggled to keep their absent husbands alive in the minds of their children; many who had perhaps been babies when war broke out had little or no recollection of their fathers; many more, conceived during a spell of leave, were yet to meet their daddies.
Some never would.
On her mantelpiece, my grandmother Lydia Groark ( Edie’s next-door neighbour in Caroline Street) kept a large photograph of her husband Jim in his army uniform, which she would talk to every day, her baby daughter Moira in her arms. Moira would eventually come to refer to the photograph, when she learned to speak, as her “paper daddy”.
Lydia hadn’t seen Jim for well over a year. Jim had been conscripted into the Royal Engineers in the early part of 1940, and by the autumn of 1943, having survived the North Africa campaign, and being torpedoed on a troop ship in the Mediterranean, was about to take part in the invasion of Italy. To make matters even more difficult for Lydia, her 20 year old brother Jack Clyde was serving with RAF bomber command, and faced, at that time, roughly a 50% chance of surviving to the end of his tour of duty. Lydia’s situation and family circumstances were nothing unusual, and were replicated in millions of households up and down the country.”
- Extract from “Above Us The Stars”, Chapter 20, “Paper Daddy”.
How we remember
The Second World War ended twenty-five years before I was born, and yet it shaped me.
The emotions experienced by those who endured those six long years – the hardships, the fear, the pain of separation, the emptiness of uncertainty, grief, love, disappointment and ultimately joy and relief – lived on, diminished but never entirely extinguished.
Some dealt with those emotions by burying them, never revealing their stories and memories to their loved ones; others, like my grandparents, talked about their experiences constantly. As I grew older, I began to understand concepts of catharsis and of “collective family memory.” They talked because it helped them process the things they had seen, the things they had lived through, and in some cases the things they had had to do.
Their history became my history.
It’s your history too.
Remembrance for me is not about the parades, nor the poppies; it’s about the private moments of reflection.
The very fact that we still pause, and take time to remember, is perhaps all that John Rochester, William Malkin, Jonathan Bullimore, Albert Moss, and the tens of thousands of others like them, would have asked.
The Royal British Legion need your support this year. You can help by donating here Please also consider offering your support to any of the veterans’ charities. I’ll be donating to the RAF Benevolent Fund.
You can read more about Lydia and Jim Groark, Jack Clyde and Seaham during the war on the Above Us The Stars page.