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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 June 2006, 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK
Walking in my grandfather's footsteps
Neil McGurk, an engineer from Cambridgeshire, is taking part in a five-day commemorative march in France to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

Neil McGurk (left) and his grandfather Horace Clark (Photos courtesy: Neil McGurk)
Neil McGurk in reproduction uniform (left) and his grandfather Horace
Re-enacting historical events is a favourite hobby of Neil's. But this march is a personal pilgrimage as he retraces the footsteps of three of his ancestors.

William, Ernest and Horace Clark all fought in the Great War, but only Neil's grandfather Horace survived.

Horace lived with Neil and his parents in the family home in Middlesbrough, but he never spoke about the war - the memories were too much to bear - and he died in 1977.

So Neil has had to piece together his family's role in the Great War himself - a daunting task bearing in mind that most World War I military service records were destroyed by World War II bombing.

"The death roll for William Clark is where this all started. A couple of months ago this was all I knew about my great-uncle.

Map of the marcher's route along the 1 July front line
"He had been killed in the Great War and had been a Corporal in the Durham Light Infantry."

In the days leading up to the commemorative march, he has been sifting through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, census records and old family photos. He has also visited his grandfather's grave, which to his great surprise, mentions his great uncles Ernest and William.

William's service number indicates he joined up before 1914, as a part-time soldier in the 1st/5th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry. He was a stretcher-bearer and was killed on 17th September 1916, aged 27. His brother Ernest had died in January of that year.

Neil has also been getting his reproduction uniform and kit ready for the five-day march, undaunted by the prospect of living the life of a Great War soldier.

"It's a chance in a lifetime. I think these sort of things are worthwhile doing because the number of veterans are becoming fewer and fewer," he said.

"For me it's less about the politics [of war], more about the sacrifice of those people who were swept up in it. It makes me realise how lucky I was to have been born. My grandfather survived, and so I am here."

The route follows roughly the front line of 1 July 1916. At each halt, Neil will help set up a 1916 Living History camp which will be open to the public in the afternoon.

Daily rations for an infantryman
Meat - fresh (1lb) or corned beef (3/4lb)
Bread, 1 1/4lb, or 3/4lb biscuit or flour
Bacon, 4oz
Cheese, 2oz
Fresh veg, 8oz or dried, 2oz
Tea, 5/8oz
Jam, 2oz
Butter, less than 2oz
Sugar, 3oz
Oatmeal/Rice, less than 2oz
Salt 1/2oz
Mustard, Pepper
Condensed milk
Pickles 1oz weekly

Total calories: 4,232

Source: National Army Museum

Neil and his fellow re-enactors are being encouraged to experience as much as they can of life as a "Tommy". They will dress in period uniform and eat standard rations. They will even wash their clothes in buckets and hang them out using period clothes pegs.

Members of the public can join the march or send Great War style letters or appropriate presents to the troops from home. These will be distributed, and those who receive a message from "home" will write back.

There will be some concessions to modern living - portable toilets and showers, for one, and tents and other heavy equipment will be moved by 21st century vans. Neil will be allowed a mobile phone so he can let us know how he's coping with life as a Great War soldier.

The march ends on Friday 30 June, and the following day there will be a memorial service at Thiepval attended by Prince Charles.

There, Neil hopes to find his great-uncle's name, Corporal William Clark, engraved on the world's largest British war memorial.

See people re-enacting the lives of WWI soldiers


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