It was never going to be easy, gathering up relatives from both sides of the Atlantic for a memorial day in London to mark the centenary of our great-uncle’s death on the Somme.
In fact, it turned out to be impossible. One by one, cousins and second cousins declared themselves regretfully unavailable. For a short while it looked as though an American contingent might make it, but then their plans fell through.
It was clear to my sister and me that, counting her two sons who would be joining us in their suits, ties and shiny shoes from their respective places of work in Mayfair and north London, our big group was now going to number precisely four.
We would be the only ones going to the headquarters of Great-Uncle Albert’s old TA regiment in the City of London to pay our respects, but, as all the absent relatives promised to hold Albert in their thoughts on the day, we felt that at least the family as a whole was aware of his sacrifice and was doing whatever was possible to honour it.
Albert’s regiment is the Honourable Artillery Company, and, as luck would have it, my action-man younger nephew, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Albert, had joined it for a short spell a few years ago when he first moved to London.
Through the contacts he maintains there, he was able to arrange for the regiment’s memorial book, displayed in a glass case on the staircase at Armoury House, to be turned to the page bearing Albert’s name. This was one of the first things we saw on entering the headquarters, and the impact it had on me suddenly turned a day out in London into something completely different.
Seeing Albert’s name, listed there in decorative script among a dozen others on the page – one page of hundreds – made him real, no longer just a figure in a few faded sepia photographs. A young man with a family of proud parents and adoring sisters, with a future in which he might have achieved anything. Instead, he had fallen lifeless into the mud of the Somme one miserable October day, the random victim of a sniper’s bullet.
My throat closed and my eyes pricked. Dear Albert, known only to me by name. Now you are real in my thoughts, no longer one-dimensional, and I thank you for what you did, for the difference you tried to make.
One of our photos of Albert shows him standing with a group of Army friends, a towel over one arm and smiling broadly. In fact, everyone in the group of nine young men is smiling, eyes twinkling, relaxed and as casual as they could be despite the constraints of the belted khaki. I wonder how many came home. By the law of averages, perhaps one. So sadly, so very sadly, it was not our Albert.
I am tremendously glad I made the big trek to London, despite having to be frog-marched through tube stations and along a hundred crowded streets by my city-wise sister, whose legs are approximately twice the length of mine.
Even so, galloping along at knee-height behind her, I knew that my pathetic, puffing effort was absolutely nothing compared with the travails and discomfort our poor dear Albert must have had to endure.