Today was to have been a Beach Hut Day.
Along with four or five of The Girls, the idea was to take over a beach hut on Ferring
sea front and enjoy a quintessentially English sea-side day. We had all agreed exactly what we would bring to the party. My contribution was the two disposable barbecues, together with matches (to light them) and water (to extinguish them.) Another “Girl”
was bringing bread. Someone else was providing the salad. Eleanor, our Beach Hut Day Organiser, was supplying the wine. Each of us would bring what we wanted to cook on the barbie – I, for example, had purchased a lamb chump chop and two chipolata sausages
from our local butcher. I am, you will surely have noted, the Last of the Big Spenders. It all promised to be a Fun Day Out.
Except that when we all woke up this
morning it was blowing a gale and nobody actually felt like sitting on a beach all day, hut or no hut. Reluctantly, we cancelled. Which left me with an unexpectedly free day and a chance to take myself off to the County Records Office for a bit more
research on the Great War Project.
Regular readers will remember that on my last visit to the Records Office, I found myself weeping over the letters and postcards
sent home to his “Dearest Mother” by Private Ernest George Richardson who died in the Battle of Marne in July 1918. Today I plan to look at the papers of his brother Albert to see what else I can find out about the Richardson family.
I always get my timing wrong when I visit the Records Office. Well, OK, perhaps “always” is a bit of an exaggeration as this is only my second visit – but
once again I manage to arrive just as the sign goes up that “no documents may be ordered between 12.15 and 1.30 p.m.” How do I do that? It reminds me of a family holiday in France back in 1982. Every place we travelled, every town we
visited, we always managed to arrive at 1 p.m. just as everything shut down for a long lunch, stretching out till 3 p.m. The French, we discovered, do not do lunchtime by halves.
When I finally get my hands on Albert Richardson’s records, I am initially a little disappointed. It is a very slim file, compared with that of his brother. There is a printed message from Lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer
Hunter Weston K.C.B. D.S.O to all officers, NCOs and men of the VIII Army Corps, dated 4th July 1916. Following the attack on Beaumont-Hamel-Serre on 1st July 1916, he writes: “ waves of men issued from their trenches
and moved forward at the appointed time in perfect order, undismayed by the heavy artillery fire and deadly machine gun fire. There were no cowards or waverers and not a man fell out. It was a magnificent display of disciplined courage worthy of the best traditions
of the British race.”
There are a couple of letters home, one written from Italy where Albert was serving with the Italian Expeditionary Force.
He knows that his younger brother Ernest is missing, presumed killed, and tries to give his parents suggestions of where they might go for help in their search for information. He is sure one day they will receive "the best news." Sadly I know it is not to
In another letter, he describes the snowdrops, primroses and rock plants coming into flower. He tells of the local family he sometimes visits (“one learns the lingo a bit” he observes)
and how he wanted to give them postcards his parents had sent him but had had to move on before he could do so.
There’s one more envelope in the file. It’s
marked “Active Service” and I open it carefully, expecting to find another letter home. But no, the envelope is full of pressed flowers. After nearly a hundred years, they are mostly brown, flaky skeletons of stalks and leaves and flowers but
among them is a flower, a bright blue flower, almost as blue, I think, as when Albert picked it. And I suddenly remember that Albert was a gardener before the War which shattered his world and claimed the life of his beloved younger brother. I think
of him, picking the most beautiful flowers, pressing them carefully, and lovingly posting them back home to “Dearest Mother.”
Albert the Gardener,
according to his Commanding Officer, was one of the 80,000 men who put on a “magnificent display of disciplined courage worthy of the best traditions of the British race.” But much more than this, I know that, even amid all the horror, he managed
to find something of beauty in a war-torn country, far from home.
If you still need convincing, then inside an envelope, tucked away in a green file in
the West Sussex County Records Office, there is a bright blue flower to prove it...