What a surprise I got when, during our gym ladies Christmas lunch in November last year, November 11th to be precise, I received a cellphone call from my UK cousin Peter, who was at that very moment awaiting the start of the ceremony commemorating 100 years after the Battle of Somme at Thiepval Memorial in France.
The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme is a war memorial to 72,246 missing British Empire servicemen who died in the Battles of the Somme of the First World War between 1915 and 1918, with no known graves.
I had been following his daily entries on his Facebook page, including cellphone photos, of a tour of the Ypres Salient and sites along the Somme River in Belgium and France, which he, his partner Tony and several other South African friends, were on under the guidance of Kathie Satchwell.
Sounding excited and very emotional he told me that, on the previous day, he had found my family name printed as “A. Keay” amongst the missing at Delville Wood and asked if it could possibly be a member of our family. I was caught up in his emotion as he described the atmosphere which surrounded him and felt as if I was standing right there, next to him. I had goosebumps and tears rolled down my cheeks. Quite extraordinary! My mind was spinning as I tried to think of our family history and who was in the First World War. I have photographs of our Grandfather Ralph in uniform before he married our Grandmother but I couldn’t recall any other photographs of siblings in uniform. I couldn’t wait to get home to pull out our Granny’s photograph album and my family tree which my Dad put together.
I had forgotten our Grandfather Ralph had had an older brother named Alexander, possibly because he doesn’t appear in any photographs except one, as a child. My Dad passed away 16 years ago (oh my gosh, so long ago 😦 and I look at his photograph up on the wall above me as I sit here .. where have the years gone) Wouldn’t I love to sit and chat to him today. He would tell me the whole story as he probably did years ago, and maybe even several times (!) but it had slipped my mind after years of not listening to his tales of younger days.
Thank goodness for the Internet and digital social media as I found Great-Uncle Alexander’s name and more, relaying all the info to Peter in France
While at Thiepval Memorial, Peter confirmed what I had found on the Internet and sent me this photo .. (quite a few Keay’s I see !!! Not a common spelling – I wonder if they are connected to our family in any way? )
Memories jogged, and we remembered the story told by our grandmother of Alexander’s bravery as he protected a friend and fellow serviceman by covering his body. An heroic deed or an elaboration of what really happened, no one knows. My Dad had various medals in a box but none from WW1. Alexander must have been given a medal, posthumously, of some sort, even a service medal. I wonder if other members of the family have it … youngest brother Dan, or sister Laura ? Oh how I wish I could speak to my Dad … … …
I had no idea that Peter had a book printed with his thoughts and experiences of the tour, he and nine fellow South Africans went on. An emotional journey, one which I connected with and was so very moved by it all. What a surprise I got the other day when a parcel arrived, from England, containing his book and a handwritten note to me, in a hand so similar to his mother’s !!!!
Peter, thank you so much. A treasure amongst our family history to be passed down.
I thought I’d add the photograph, from which Peter extracted the only image of Alexander I have : l to r – Ralph (our Grandfather), Dan and Alexander
Scrolling through umpteen websites (then, when Peter phoned me, and now, compiling this blog post) on Delville Wood, Thiepval Memorial, 4th Regiment – South African Infantry, Battle of the Somme and more, I came across these two photographs of the 4th Regiment troops, in their Murray of Atholl kilts … both photos dated 1918. Imagine these young men fighting this terrible war in these appalling conditions in kilts !!!
Men of the 4th South African Infantry Regiment take a rest along a road during the march of the South African Brigade out of action of Dernancourt to rest at Condas, 31 March 1918 (Delville Wood Museum)
Rare and fascinating image of a South African fighting regiment in World War 1. Here South Africans from the 4th Regiment ‘South African Scottish’ perform a traditional ‘African Tribal War Dance’ with drawn bayonets and dancing in their distinctive ‘Murray of Atholl’ tartan kilts. The image was taken at the ‘Bull Ring’ in Etaples, France prior to the troops final deployment to trench warfare 18 June 1918. (Colourised by Royston Leonard from the UK)
Hubby and I have been to France but our tour didn’t take in the North East. It’s on my bucket list, not only to see WW1 sites but also do the Champagne area 😉