100 years since the guns of the First World War fell silent, and over four years of devastating loss on all sides of the conflict came to an end. So many millions of lives lost, many more shattered, and generations affected by the gaping holes left in their families and communities.
My great-grandfather, William Russell, was shot three weeks before the Armistice, advancing through Northern France. He was 39, and he left six children: the youngest of whom was only a year old. He was a postman from Peckham, and I can’t even begin to understand the horror of what he went through before he was so tragically lost.
How my great-grandmother Rosa Russell got through it, I have no idea; how it must have been to receive that news, and then wondering how on earth she would survive with five sons and a daughter depending on her. She had a large family network, and a widow’s pension from the Post Office; but in an age where the workhouse was alive and well, one of her greatest fears must have been that she and her children could be separated.
It must have been a daily struggle for her, but Nannan Russell, as my father knew her, found a way. She went back out to work – into service, I believe, which is what she had done before her marriage. She also took a female lodger, who became known to all the family as Auntie Gwen, and who helped her look after the children. All of them grew up, got married, and had families of their own: uncles and aunts and cousins for my Dad and his little brother, all respected and many of them dearly loved. Auntie Gwen remained a huge part of our family until she died an old lady, and I remember her with great affection too. Like millions of other matriarchs, my Nannan Russell brought up Britain, all in the shadow of her widow’s grief.
The impact of his death must have been overwhelming, though, and far greater than I will ever really know. We understand so much more nowadays about the effect of losing a parent. The anecdotes and family stories I’ve been told over the years about the Russell siblings and their wonderful mother resound with constant resilience, an unshakeable sense of humour and fun, and, of course, the usual Victorian stiff-upper-lippedness about showing emotion and weakness. The children all had to grow up quicker than they would otherwise have done, especially the older ones, and the effects of doing so without a father figure have echoed down the generations; the family saw its share of tragedy throughout the 20th century. This must be true for millions of families, both here and across Europe.
And how desperately sad that the sons and daughters of all these parents, who sacrificed so much for their nation, then had to do it all again just 31 years later, as our little island was once again under attack from dictators who wanted to impose their regimes of hate and intolerance on our people. My Grandpa – the middle child of the Russell family – became a Navigator in the RAF, and nearly lost his own life on several occasions. His surviving brothers all served in various capacities as well.
So this Armistice weekend, I will of course be thinking with enormous gratitude of the fatal sacrifice that millions gave, so that I can live a free life with my own family. I will be thinking, with great sadness, of the gap that was left at the head of my dear Grandpa’s family; and I will be thinking, with great pride, of my Nannan Russell, and how incredibly hard it must have been for her to achieve what she did; and I will be hoping that the world never again sees a conflict that inflicts such enormous loss on so many generations.
Please do share your own family and friends war stories with me, in the comments section or personally; I would really love to hear them. It keeps alive the memory of those brave people, and the memory of the loved ones who survived them – and somehow managed to live without them.
My great-grandfather, William Russell