I wrote this for last Sunday’s Express and the reaction has been very touching. Several people have suggested that although it’s not Tower Hamlets related I should publish it on my blog. (The modern photos are courtesy of Mike Gunnill.)
ON APRIL 10, 1918, 21 days into the great push by the Kaiser’s Imperial German Army, and seven months before the end of the hostilities, Private 26423 Edward Horsman Hatton, a brave member of the 8th Border Regiment based on the border of Belgium and France, became just another number of the First World War.
He was 40.
It’s fair to say he wasn’t the most enthusiastic conscript when called up aged 38 in August 1916.
From Flixton, near Manchester, he was an educated man: a chartered company secretary and an accomplished photographer; officer material, undoubtedly.
He felt he was too old to fight, so too did his wife Amy.
And above all, he also had his “lil sweetheart” to look after, three-year-old Maimie: my grandmother.
But the honour of a British Empire stuck in the bloody mud of Belgium and France clearly had a far greater need.
What happened to her beloved father–she saw him only once more before arthritis reduced him from infantryman to stretcher-bearer cannon fodder–made her a pacifist for life.
The small leather-bound briefcase I found at the bottom of her wardrobe a few years before she died nine decades later was her treasure trove.
Packed inside, more than 100 beautiful pencil-written letters from the trenches to his wife, some from Amy to him, a few from him to Maimie…all delivered for future generations.
The box of beautiful faded yellow letters from Ted Hatton, and his wife Amy’s diary in the centre
And carefully wrapped within them, a tiny pocket diary of hope and despair kept by Amy in the agonising months he was reported missing in action.
“A very sacred little book,” my gran later wrote on its inside cover.
Together they provided a heartbreaking story that to us is quite extraordinary but which sadly would have been all too common at the time.
With Remembrance Sunday next week and the war’s centenary approaching next year, millions of other families should have similar tales to tell.
The records are all there for us to explore.
In my case, the letters revealed my great grandfather’s Army number and regiment name.
Those led me to the National Archives in Kew, south west London, and from there his regiment’s war diaries pointed me to his final fighting place.
Which is where I went not long before my gran died.
And this is how I discovered her dear Daddy’s name inscribed on a large memorial to those who went “missing” in that area.
When I showed her the photograph, she cried.
I took her daughter there this summer, my mum Christine.
She also cried.
My mum and me at the Ploegsteert Memorial: Ted Hatton on the right
The area is Ploegsteert Wood, close to Messines in southern Belgium.
The squaddies nicknamed it Plug Street; it was where Winston Churchill served in 1916, and it was also where German and British soldiers held the famous Christmas Day truce football match in 1914.
A new visitor centre opens there on November 9.
The place is magical; peaceful and serene.
The Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing in southern Belgium
Ted Hatton hated it.
It wasn’t just the war, it was the separation from family, the homesickness, the pining for wife and daughter.
The beginnings of the Royal Berkshire Military Cemetery at Ploegsteert in 1918
Yet his simple, elegant letters–they are truly beautiful to look at—also reveal the frustrations of family.
Amy was imploring him to apply for an officer’s commission, but he was worn out and he probably knew better.
Amy’s diary of guilt after his death is almost too painful to read.
The story, from Britain to France, then hell and heaven, is all there in 35,000 words of faded yellow notepaper.
So, just a few days before he sails for Le Havre in December 1916: “Well Kid I was before the Dr this morning & have been passed fit.
“Am sorry to say I have also been warned for a draft to France but don’t know the date on which I shall have to go, but expect it will be about Dec 16th.
“I think we are passing through our darkest days & there will be a happy time for us when all this nasty business is over.”
In reply, Amy tells him little Maimie “is always asking about you – she says ‘I want to see ‘me’ Daddy’.
“She says every night when I put her to bed, “Goodnight and God bless Daddy and bring him safe home.”
A few days later, he’s in France. “Don’t brood lovey, I may not go anywhere near the firing line, & if I do, I stand as good a chance as anyone else of coming through.
“Teach our little girlie to say her prayers for us & then we shall be alright.
“Remember always kiddie that I love you before anyone else & God knows that if I get the chance I shall endeavour to make you happy in the future.”
Two weeks after Christmas that year, he visited the trenches for the first time as part of a working party.
“I don’t know when I shall commence my career as a real fighting soldier, but expect it will be any day now,” he reported home.
“Don’t worry dear, I think I shall come through all right & we shall spend many happy days together.
PS Could do with a pair of socks if you could manage to get them.”
Some time later during a break from the trenches, he wrote: “We are still billeted in the usual airey barn & have to put up with all kinds of discomforts, such as rain coming through the roof, rats etc.
“I often wonder what it would be like to have dry & warm feet again. The weather here is abominable, snow, sleet, frost & rain ever since we came.
“However, I am fairly well so that is something to be thankful for.”
In September 1917, we glimpse the first tension with Amy: “Now as regards my application for a commission I have thought well over the matter and have come to the conclusion that I am better off in every way in my present position.
“You see, Kid, they want young men and I am not the man I was when I joined the Army.
“There is nothing seriously the matter with me, but you can well understand that nine months of the life out here has had some effect.”
Two months later: “Glad to say I am OK but longing to get back to you again. I do wish the Bosch would throw up the sponge and let us be happy once more.”
Then after a short special spell of leave at home in February 1918, and six weeks before his death, comes this terrible letter: “I shall never forget the parting. If there was a more miserable chap on earth at that time – well, I’m sorry for him.
“I felt, and am still feeling, heartbroken. God knows, Kid, I love you with all my heart and soul and am sorry for all the worry and anxiety your love for me is causing you. “However, dearest, I shall try to be as cheerful as I can and live in the hope that this parting won’t be for long and that we are enabled to make up for all the misery we are now experiencing by a long and happy future together.”
In March 1918, he writes this: “Now, my dear girl, whatever has put you in such a bad temper with me?
“I told you I had done my best to get my name put forward for a Commission and I told you the truth.
“As I tried to make clear to you when I was at home, it will be a very hard matter for a man of my age to get a recommendation as there are scores of younger and more active men after any vacancies that arise.
“I am no longer young as soldiers go and can’t at the present time keep up the pace; as a matter of fact, I have recently been made a stretcher bearer on that account.
“I am not ill but find I can’t run and jump as of old.
“As regards the future, if God spares me to come through this awful business, my one desire is to try and make you happy and that is about all I can say on the matter.
“Please try and think a little better of me and if I have not made you very happy, it has not been because I have not tried, but perhaps because I have not had the ability.”
This was his last letter.
How Amy must have felt.
Wracked with guilt, she turns to her diary and writes on July 7 1918: “Oh my husband, how I love you, how I have suffered.
“And I deserve it too. Tonight is one of my hopeful nights. How I have prayed to God to give me just one more chance simply to be your loving wife.
“God send you back to me, Ted sweetheart. How I long to tell you how much I love you and to feel your dear arms round me, and to hear the voice I love so well.
“What will the morning bring? Oh God grant it may be news of him.
“What are king and country to me if my husband has been sacrificed? Nothing, nothing, nothing.
“In life or death, my darling, I am yours forever and ever end ever.”
On Armistice Day, November 11, 1972, five years after Amy herself died, my gran once more picked up this little book and wrote this on the inside cover: “God grant they are now re-united.”
My family remembers them.