Monday, 4 August 2014

4th August 1914

One hundred years ago today Britain declared war with Germany.

Between August 1914 and November 1918 there where very few families who didn't lose a relative to the war. Some towns and villages lost all of their male members of fighting age, leaving only the elderly, women and children behind to carry on.

This is how the war touched my family.

From what I was told by my Mum, on her paternal side of the family my grandfather's family were an industrious lot. They were Yorkshire folk who lived in the outskirts of Leeds and had prospered sufficiently to consider themselves rising up the class system. So much so they wanted to chart their good fortune by indulging in the new fashion of having family portraits taken by professional photographers. They would dress up in their Sunday best and sit or stand in stiff poses while their images were captured through the lens of the camera.

The Watt family consisted of Ma and Pa and their five daughters, Rosa, Lydia, Anne, Fanny Elizabeth and Tilly, plus their three sons, Jack, Alfred and Oswald. Most of the daughters worked as seamstresses but the youngest daughter, Tilly, took a very different route by running away with the circus where she took to the skies as a rope walker. (Her story is one to be told on another day). The boys all wanted to become engineers like their father. At the outbreak of the first world war Jack would have been just fifteen and like lots of other boys his age the thought of going off to fight seemed exciting. To wear a uniform and travel to the Continent was the stuff dreams were made of, to be a hero and make your family proud was a very tantalizing prospect. So much so that one morning Jack walked out of the door, went down to the recruiting office, lied about his true age and signed away his life. Like many others he didn't return, his mother received the dreaded telegram telling her he was missing in action. They never knew where he fell, only that he was a boy of seventeen when he died. 

Today I cannot imagine just how my Great, great, grandmother coped with such news. All her children survived birth and childhood illnesses but she outlived three of them. Jack, then Tilly, who fell to her death from the high wire and lastly Lydia who having held pins in her mouth for years as she stitched contracted blood poisoning through her tongue and died in her early twenties.

But today it is Jack I wish to remember, along with all those other brave souls who lost their lives to the war. 

The Watt family - minus Tilly

Jack Watt - aged 14yrs

The government asked for 100,000 volunteers to join the army once war was declared, over 750,000 came forward in the first month.

There is no definitive list for the numbers of people lost to the first world war but this is the generally accepted volume of losses.

65 million fought.
8 million soldiers killed in battle.
2 million died of illness or disease.
21.2 million wounded.
7.8 taken prisoner or missing in action.
6.6 million civilians killed.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though the poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae


  1. How lucky you are to know of your families history. My grandfather would have been 14... living in Edinburgh during this time. I must ask to see if there is any stories in my own family. Thanks for sharing :-)
    big hugs,

  2. This is a wonderful post and I'm so glad in my catching-up mode that I went back this far. I he a great interest in the Great War and its aftermath and how it affected families (especially single women who couldn't find a mate after the war because of the loss of young men). I so admire that you know your family's history -- I know back some but not that far. Thanks for sharing this. It's quite moving.