Page last updated at 10:34 GMT, Wednesday, 11 November 2009

WWI generation

Soldiers in WWI

The passing of the World War I generation has been formally marked in a national event at Westminster Abbey on Remembrance Day on 11 November. Readers of the BBC News website have been telling us about their relatives who helped with the war effort.

This year saw the passing of the three remaining veterans of World War I living in the UK. William Stone in January and both Henry Allingham and Harry Patch in July. With these men gone there is now no living link in the UK to one of the most traumatic events in modern history.

Tom Bayes and Charlotte Nikolaeva remember their relatives who fought in WWI.

Tom Bayes whose grandfather fought in the war
Tom Bayes whose grandfather fought in the war
My grandad, Tom Pratt, was one of nine brothers from an incredibly poor family. They spent their lives travelling from farm to farm offering themselves as labourers and taking whatever work they could. He was six when he became a crow scarer. He worked on farms around Brackley and Evenley in Buckinghamshire. One day when he was 17-years-old, a truck pulled up and a man in uniform said that if he went to Banbury Cross and signed up for the army, he would get money, food and a chance to travel the world. So he went.

Tom Pratt (on the far right) became a police officer after the war
Tom Pratt (on the far right) became a police officer after the war
He was soon posted to France as part of the Cold Stream Guards and joined the front line. He said once that he was told off for firing at the enemy before the official whistle to shoot had blown. He argued with his superiors that as soon as the whistle to shoot blew, all the Germans ducked down and he missed them!

My grandad could never understand why his friends at the front line came and went. They had breaks and then returned to fight. He asked why he never had a break.

After some investigation, his superior told him that there was no record of him being in the army. His registration details had been lost and that was why he was always at the front line. I don't think he really minded though. I got the impression from him that he was a really good marksman and was respected by his comrades. I think the war gave him a chance to be good at something.

Tom Pratt on his wedding day in 1927
Tom Pratt on his wedding day in 1927

Whenever he talked to me about the war, he was very black and white. He rarely got emotional. One time though he got really upset. He was talking about how the Germans would shoot at the stables. They were trying to kill the horses so that there would be no way of transporting the heavy artillery. He said he remembers watching the horses in pain and having to shoot them to put them out of their misery. He found that hard. He could understand men shooting men but not animals being killed.

When the war ended he came home. Because of his reputation and experience, he became a policeman. He had a house, a regular income and married a school teacher. The war lifted him out of his life of poverty. I was 13 when my grandad died. I remember him as a very strong, good man. As I say, he rarely talked emotionally about what he had gone through but he did say that the war was horrible.

Charlotte's daughter, Sarah, at John Bassett's grave in Bethune
Charlotte's daughter, Sarah, at John Bassett's grave in Bethune

My daughter was 15-years-old when her school took her on a trip to visit the WWI graves in Bethune, France. Her teachers had found out where her great great grandfather, John Bassett, was buried. She had no idea she was going to visit his grave. She was very moved, all the children were. It brought home to them what it really meant for all those young men to go to war and die for future generations. Her class went to the Menin Gate and she was stunned by how many names were on the list there. Suddenly, WWI became very real to her and her friends.

John Bassett served with the South Wales Borderers
John Bassett served with the South Wales Borderers

John Bassett was 36 when he joined up. He was older and so he didn't have to go but he felt he wanted to do his duty. He died aged 38. His wife had already died and his passing meant his 14-year-old daughter was orphaned. The war hurt so many people.

I also remember my great uncle, Emrys Davies who also served in the war. He was 58 when I was born and he never talked about what he went through. His sister, my great aunt Dorothy, did manage to get him to talk and she wrote up a diary about his experiences.

Emrys was 16 when he joined up. He was one of eight children. Three of them went to war; two for WWI and one for WWII. Fortunately they all came back. Emrys was invalided out of the army quite early on. He was injured in the trenches and sent back home. Nobody knows what happened, he never spoke about it but I remember seeing his terrible scars.

Although he could no longer serve in the Royal Navy, he felt he couldn't just turn his back on his comrades. He wanted to do his duty. So he joined the merchant navy. His ship was torpedoed in the Channel and it sunk. He tried to rescue the cabin boy who was just a 14-year-old teenager. He grabbed his hand and tried to hold on. The wreckage, the oil and the fire became too much and he lost his grip. The young boy sunk into the water and he couldn't find him. The boy died. This was the hardest part of the war for Emrys. He felt so powerless and frustrated. It affected him the most.

He tried to rescue the cabin boy who was just a 14-year-old teenager. He grabbed his hand and tried to hold on

My great uncle was rescued by Breton fishermen. They hauled him onto their boat and sailed to the English coast. They clothed him and dropped him on the beaches of his homeland. He made his way home but when he walked down the path and knocked on the door, nobody recognised him. He was dressed head to toe as a Breton fisherman.

The lady who wrote his diary, my great aunt Dorothy, was also one of the first people to hear that the war had ended. She was with her mother in the village post office when she saw some people getting excited in the back room. They were receiving a telegram. She overheard one of the staff reading out the news that the war had ended. When she told her mother, she was told off for being silly and making up stories. A few minutes later, when they were on the road back home, great aunt Dorothy told everyone the war had ended. Nobody believed her until one man laughed and said she was absolutely right. Soon all the villagers were celebrating.

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