I’ve been engaged in a spot of genealogy over the past few weeks. It began as a bit of a school project with my youngest son and spawned out into a minor obsession of my own. Trawling through ancestry.co.uk, through old and faded birth, marriage and death certificates – slowly yellowing in old suitcases in my parent’s attic; looking at census lists, compiling names, dates – tracing the blood line back through history. It is entirely fascinating.
It is extraordinary to discover you are the latest in a line going back centuries and spawning over 100 relatives all with their own branched out families, even if, logically thinking, you already knew this to be the case. But to unearth the names, dates, locations suddenly and rather powerfully personalises the whole affair. That nagging sense of fate, chance, whatever – the notion that we are where we are and we are who we are, simply because all of those people existed and lived a certain life decades and centuries beforehand.
But then, beyond that, perhaps because it is the curiosity driven writer inside me, I start to look at the names and wonder. I ask the questions, most of which remain unanswered, about who these people were, what they did, how they lived. Why did one relative die so young, why did another live apart from his family for a while, only to reunite years late? Why did one line of the family suddenly move from Devon to Cardiff in the 1880s?
And, then, because history is so dominated by them, I think of the impact of war on the family. War that has pierced the fabric of society all too often over the last 250 years. How much did any of these conflicts impact upon my own bloodline? Perhaps, because this is remembrance weekend, the question has bubbled to the surface with more prescience.
My grandparents, all four of whom I was lucky to have in my life throughout the entirety of childhood, would often mention the war, if not necessarily go into detail. Both of my grandfathers served in the RAF and what I know of their experience is sketchy at best, as neither gave too much away about their time in service. My grandmothers would offer anecdotes that I’ve long since used to paint a picture of wartime Cardiff. Of how my Nan was in the pictures on one of the nights Cardiff was bombed, of seeing buses and buildings ablaze, of the family a few streets away who all died in their bunker from the blast of a nearby strike – found the following day without a discernable mark upon them.
Another story that my grandfather told me, a tale that has stayed with me ever since, was of a relative of either his or my Nan’s, I don’t know which, who was involved in the evacuation from Dunkerque.
As the story goes, said relative was part of a platoon of men on the retreat from Hitler’s forces in Belgium. Under the fairly constant threat of fatal engagement with the enemy they marched, mainly on foot, through the Belgian countryside – mile upon mile upon mile – finally crossing into France and the coastal town of Dunkerque to await their final seaborne escape.
The walk had taken its toll. My relative had worn through the soles of his boots, then most of the soles of his feet. He was exhausted beyond what we might be able to believe possible and weak from a lack of adequate nourishment. He also had another problem with which to contend.
He couldn’t swim.
This was a source of major concern as to get to the salvation of a boat required him to swim from the shore to get aboard.
Throughout the trek across Belgium my relative had been walking with a mate from the regiment. They stuck together through it all, a constant shoulder to lean upon for the other as the going grew ever tougher. When they arrived at Dunkerque his mate was a rock of assurance. If my relative couldn’t swim it didn’t matter. Swim alongside me, he told him, we’ll get there together.
My relative did get there. With the help of his mate and through the desperate measures requiring a crash course in staying afloat, both men arrived at the safe haven of a rescuing trawler and my relative would come home to recuperate and relay his astonishing tale.
His mate, whose name is lost to me in history, was dead before they reached England.
I don’t know which of my relatives this happened to, nor do I know the absolute truth of the story – beyond that which my grandfather told me. But, as I stare at the names upon my family tree, it sends a tingle into my soul that this was a defining moment in the life of one of those names – one of those contributors to my being here today.