You speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.
A year ago this past autumn - a year before the old life so shockingly blew away - I made a long-contemplated trip to France and Belgium to see the cemeteries of the First World War. My quest, though transatlantic, was a modest, conventional and somewhat anorakish one: I hoped to locate the grave of my great-uncle, Rifleman Lewis Newton Braddock, 1st/17th (County of London) Battalion (Poplar and Stepney Rifles), the London Regiment, who had died in the war and was buried near Amiens. Facts about him are scarce. My grandmother, whose only brother he was, has been dead now for twenty years. No one else who knew him is still alive. By stringing together odd comments from family members I've learned that he worked as a greengrocer's boy in Derby before joining up in 1915; that he served first in the Sherwood Foresters; that he managed to survive three years before getting killed during the final German retreat in June 1918. My mother, born eight years after his death, claims to have heard as a child that he was shot accidentally - 'by his own guns'. But my uncle Neil, her only brother, can't believe 'they would have told the family that.' Newton was said to be artistic: two dusty little green-grey daubs - both of them Derbyshire landscapes - are among his surviving effects. There are two photographs of him in uniform - one from the beginning of the war, the other from the end. In the first he looks pale, spindly and rather stupid: a poorly-fed, late Victorian adolescent overfond of self-abuse. In the second, the one with the moustache, he is stouter, tougher, dreamier, and looks distressingly like both my mother and my cousin Toby. My companion Blakey says he looks like me. I don't see it. I've been fascinated by him - and the Great War - since I first heard of him, at the age of six or so. I'm now 48.
LRB 4 April 2002 | PDF Download