Ian Clayton column - Importance of family stories

he Menin Gate in Ypres, where more than 54,000 soldiers are commemorated
he Menin Gate in Ypres, where more than 54,000 soldiers are commemorated

We’ve just had a visit from a friend of ours from Germany.

Heather and I first met Jurgen Bredebusch 33 years ago, when he was about to start a career as a specialist steel salesman for a company in Solingen and we had just moved into our first flat together.

We were enthusiastic young people in our 20s then; now Jurgen is preparing for his retirement and my beard has turned grey. It’s been a lovely friendship and due to numerous visits we have come to know each others’ families as well.

I knew Jurgen’s father before he died and Jurgen came to know my grandparents too. Once we had Christmas dinner with Jurgen’s parents. After the meal the family photo albums came out and there was an embarrassing moment when we flicked over a few pages of old black and white pictures of Jurgen’s dad in a gymnastics vest with a swastika on the front.

The old man explained he had no choice but to wear that vest at the time. We told him we understood, but after that he put the album away and changed the subject. Not long after, when Jurgen visited Featherstone, I asked my grandad if it was all right to introduce him to some friends from Germany.

My grandad had dodged the muck and bullets at El Alamein and his only experience of Germans had been during the war.

He said to me: “How old are they?” and when I told him, he said: “Well fetch ’em down, then, it wasn’t them that were trying to shoot me, was it?”

I was thinking about these things recently when I was listening to a remarkable new CD by the Yorkshire singer-songwriter Jim Boyes. Jim found a manuscript his grandfather Robert had written about his experiences in the First War, called ‘Sensations of a Wound,’ and this became the title of the CD.

It is a very moving testament to his grandfather, with beautiful singing from Jim and a moving musical accompaniment by another great Yorkshire musician, the pianist Belinda O’Hooley.

The CD tells the story of how in the spring of 1917, Robert Boyes, a native of Scarborough, was called away to war leaving his wife pregnant with their first child.

Within weeks he saw the horrors of Passchendale before being conveyed by cattle truck to the south of France and then Italy.

In February 1918, Robert was wounded in the back and found himself left for dead in no man’s land, where he was captured and operated on by German doctors who saved his life.

He was transferred to Berlin and wrote a poem, ‘Angel of Sleep’ to the rhythm of the train taking him there. The poem set to music is one of many poignant moments on the CD.

I know it is only February, but I have played this CD almost very day since I got it and I think that already it will be my favourite record this year. It dwells neither on the glory nor the pity of war, but simply on what happens when a young man is caught up in something outside of his control.

The songs tell of his journey from his seaside home, missing his young wife, the kindness of strangers in a prisoner of war camp, the brutality and stupidity of military leaders and being unable to speak about what he had experienced after the war.

It really is a simple story, told like plain truth should be. There is great affection as you would expect for an old grandad, but also a dignified respect for what that generation had to go through. It shows how family stories are always going to be more powerful than those we read in the ‘official’ history books. I urge you to get a copy of this CD, give it a good listen and then start to research your own personal history.

A few years ago, I went to see the battlefields and cemeteries of the First War for myself. I knew that my great great uncle Wilf’s name was on the Menin Gate at Ypres, a town Robert Boyes had travelled through.

When I found his name carved next to the thousand upon thousand others, it stopped me right in my tracks. I never knew this man, but I did know his name as my aunt Alice had talked about him a lot. He was one of three brothers, farm labourers from the Wolds who signed up and never came home.

Later on that day, I was at a cemetery near Ypres called Tyne Cott. I looked at the rows of white stones, all beautifully kept and something came over me. I don’t know whether it was the thought of what all these men memorialised here went through, or maybe the way the flowers by the graves moved on the breeze, but I started to weep.

An old man came up the side of me. He said: “Is it your first time here, son?” I said it was. He said: “Aye lad, it gets everybody like that” and gave me his hankie.