Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier

The children of the street are equally different from one another in character and appearance, and are often startlingly good-looking. They have shrill voices, clumsy clothes, the look of being small for their age, and they are liable to be comfortably dirty, but there the characteristics they have in common cease. They may be wonderfully fair, with delicate skins and pale hair; they may have red hair with snub-nosed, freckled faces; or they may be dark and intense, with long, thick eyelashes and slender, lithe bodies. Some are apathetic, some are restless. They are often intelligent; but while some are able to bring their intelligence to bear on their daily life, others seem quite unable to do so. They are abnormally noisy. Had they been well housed, well fed, well clothed and well tended, from birth, what kind of raw material would they have shown themselves to be?

Maud Pember Reeves, Round About a Pound a Week, (1913)

GRANDAD SMy paternal grandfather, Sidney Skelton, c1908

As November marks the centenary of the end of the First World War and the signing of the Armistice, I have decided to devote this month’s post to the early life of my English grandfather, Sidney Skelton, who fought in France and Flanders during the Great War. Sidney was always referred to in our family as ‘Grandad Skelton’, whereas our younger Scottish grandfather (whom we saw more regularly by dint of basic geography) was simply called ‘Grandad’. As a child, this difference in appellation used to worry me – I always thought that my English grandparents would feel that they had been relegated to second-best. Thus I hope by writing this post I can make amends for the fact that I never really knew my English grandfather well enough to learn to love him.

As a working-class Londoner who was born at the tail end of the Victorian period, not only did Sidney experience two world wars – firstly as a soldier, then as a working civilian –  but also the resulting social changes which swept through the 20th century.  I have written about my grandfather before (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers), and those who have followed my genealogical quest from the beginning may recall that he has cropped up at various points throughout my story, most notably in connection with his father and oldest brother, both of whom were named Arthur (see The Two Arthurs). Arthur Senior’s  mustachioed face can be seen in my grandparent’s wedding photograph in the banner image above, looking like a leftover from another era. Known as ‘Grandad Arthur’, his jolly-looking countenance belied the harsh life he had led – when this photograph was taken he’d already lost two wives and had endured periods of great poverty that would seem Dickensian today.

Perhaps Sidney had not expected his father to still be around for his wedding day in the autumn of 1924, when he himself was already a relatively mature man (for those days) of thirty-two. Perhaps he’d not even expected to have survived to that age – he had spent many years as a professional soldier, serving in the Great War, and had suffered the loss of an older brother and step-brother in the conflict. For my grandfather, the marriage must have been a bittersweet moment as his thoughts turned to those of his family who could not be there, including his own mother who had died when he was just three, and his step-mother whom he’d lost the year previously.

P1060932 (2)Sidney and Edith on their wedding day, 25th October, 1924

Despite his unease in his borrowed wedding suit (it surely couldn’t have been made for him), he does appear to look vaguely triumphant in his wedding photograph. Perhaps this is not as much in evidence as in the portrait taken to mark his official entry into the 19th Royal Hussars – after all, by 1924 he was no longer an innocent young man who was excited by the prospect a life of adventure, having finally experienced what real war meant. However, on that mild October day, when he married the daughter of his Brixton landlady, he was surely a contented man. His new bride, twenty-six year old Edith Matilda Stops (a name I’m ashamed to say I found ridiculously old-fashioned as a child), was an outgoing young woman who’d started work as a telephonist towards the end of the war, while no doubt still helping her widowed mother out around the house. As both her older brothers had served in the war, she was no stranger to the emotional impact of the conflict, something which was perhaps a comfort to my grandfather.

Whenever I think about my grandparents, it seems hard to reconcile their older selves with the young couple in the photograph above. By the time I came along, Grandma Skelton was already a dumpy women with thick grey hair tied back in a bun (strands of which still kept slipping out) and long, yellow teeth. She had a strange line in pork-pie hats and shiny dresses, and walked in her ugly lace-up shoes with a peculiar flat-footed gait. But I can also remember her lively dark eyes and olive complexion, her easy smile and wonderful cackling laugh. As I child I sensed that she was a happy person, despite the hardships I later discovered she’d endured. In contrast, my grandfather was thin and wiry with pale gnarled limbs and a sunken face, and always seemed to be on the verge of a bad mood. He was also rarely without a hand-rolled cigarette drooping from a corner of his mouth, which was slightly off-putting for the children of non-smokers. So we turned to our plumpish grandmother for hugs instead.

P1040821 (2)With Grandad Skelton, Christmas 1967

Thus poor Grandad suffered by comparison to his easy-going wife. It was a while after his death before I realised how varied his talents were – for woodworking, knitting, growing fruit and vegetables, and anything else he put his mind to. He was the sharp ‘brains’ of the family, but also the most tortured of all my grandparents. As my father inherited many of his characteristics (both good and bad), I know it is too simplistic to blame his experiences on the Western Front for his grumpiness in later life. But it breaks my heart to think that such a talented man ended up spending more than half his working life as a tram (and later, bus) conductor. This is not to denigrate such a job – he’d been delighted to be given such an opportunity in the lean years after the war – it is more that I believe he was the type of young man who would have greatly benefited from a recognised apprenticeship (as my Scottish grandfather did). However, his father was not in any position to support him in such a way.

When Sidney Skelton was born in Lambeth on 12th February 1892, Grandad Arthur and his first wife, Elisabeth (neé Holton), were living in rented rooms at 78, Cator street, near the Surrey Canal. A year later, when Sidney was baptised at the brand new church of All Saints, North Peckham (since dismantled), they had already moved to number 116, where they rented two unfurnished upstairs rooms from the live-in downstairs owner. This part of London was heavily bombed in WW2, resulting in a large area being turned into Burgess Park after the war (see A Tale of Two Parks), a process that took several decades to complete (and is still ongoing). Although these Cator Street houses no longer exist, the last remaining ones in the last remaining part of the street are now very much sought after residences. These period houses have a cottagey feel, yet it is also possible to imagine rows and rows of such identical multi-occupancy terraced houses, grimy in the soot-laden air, and understand why post-war planners were itching to eradicate them.

CATOR STREET (2).pngOriginal houses in Cator Street, Peckham, today

I have a strong feeling that Sidney’s mother was already ailing when she gave birth to him, her fifth child, that winter. Three years later she would be dead from cirrhosis of the liver, her new-born son, Frederick Edward, following her to the grave shortly afterwards. His malnourished rickety body was simply too weak to carry on without her. So little Sidney already had a rocky start in life, which possibly became even rockier when his father quickly remarried a widow with her own children, and the new patchwork family continued to move around south London, the youngest members being registered in different board schools every few months. Although Arthur was a shoemaker by trade, he’d never attained the level of master (as his own father had with his tailoring business), so led a more precarious existence as a journeyman, mending his customers’ shoes in whatever home the Skelton family happened to be living at the time. This would explain why my grandfather once told my aunt that he and his brothers had to walk long distances over south London in order to collect and deliver shoes for their father.

In the 1911 census, I was rather surprised to find that 52 year-old Grandad Arthur was found to be staying at Rowton House (at the Elephant and Castle), which was a fee-paying – albeit philanthropic – hostel for impoverished men. He was still married to his second wife, a widow named Harriet Pushman, but had possibly separated from her at this point (divorce being only for the wealthy). Unfortunately, after having been later used as a hotel and then a hostel, the old Rowton House building was demolished in 2007 after falling into disrepair, so I was unable to see it for myself. Yet, in 1897, when it was newly built, it was described as an impressive six-storey building, housing over 800 men, each of whom had their own small sleeping cubicle, open at the top. In addition, there were cooking facilities, opportunities to buy food and hot drinks, as well as communal living rooms, games rooms and libraries, alongside toilets and washing facilities. As one night cost around six old pence – although a room could also be booked on a weekly basis – the hostel was designed for ‘bona-fide working men’ who happened to be down on their luck. Residents who were tailors, shoemakers and barbers also offered their services, and I wonder whether Grandad Arthur was able to pick up some work while staying there.

ROWTON HOUSE (2)Rowton House, Newington Butts, c1900

By then, Arthur Skelton’s youngest son Sidney was already enlisted in the army and was most likely out of the country at that time (as he cannot be found on the 1911 census). Years later he told my father that before the Great War he had served overseas ‘somewhere hot’ (my mother thinks it was India, although it could have been in the Middle East) and there he had worn a special hat with a fold down part at the nape of the neck to protect against the sun – a style that is commonplace today due to increased concerns about UV radiation. However, in those days this issue was not people’s chief concern, and when my father was sent out to Africa with the air force in the early 1950s, my grandfather’s advised him to get out in the sun as much as possible right away, so he would quickly become acclimatised. As my father had inherited the olive skin tone of his mother, this was not a problem for him, and it seemed to me as a child that he was forever looking tanned and healthy. In fact, after years of living overseas, one of his major gripes about Scotland (and Britain as a whole – that damp dreary island in the North Atlantic) was the awful weather. So from an early age, I was picking up subliminal messages that life might be warmer and more exciting elsewhere.

My grandfather’s decision to join the British army was most likely financial. Prior to that, he had only been able to take short-term labouring jobs (as did his brothers), and years later told my parents about how he used to have to go down to the docks (possibly the Surrey Docks) to try to find daily work. As my mother once remarked, being small and wiry, Sidney might not have immediately stood out as one of the obvious men to employ for physically demanding work, and he often had to return home empty-handed. So signing up to the army gave working-class boys like Sidney a chance to have paid regular employment, to be housed, clothed and fed, and to be trained in various skills. My mother remembers how surprised she was to once come across Sidney knitting an intricate aran pullover as an old man, an unexpected benefit of being in the army.

It was only when I recently accessed the war diaries from Sidney’s regiment, the 19th Hussars, that I realised why the soldiers would have learnt such skills as knitting. Despite how I imagined life at the Western Front, it seems that in between the skirmishes there was a certain amount of time waiting and preparing for the next stage of warfare, so keeping busy would have been paramount. From 17th October 1915 (when Sidney arrived in Wardrecques, France, as part of one-hundred strong reinforcements) there are many entries which describe several days staying in billets (while waiting on commands), interspersed with trench digging, reconnoissance parties, transporting weapons etc.

In addition, soldiers constantly had to undertake bayonet and rifle drills, as well as keeping their horses fit and trained, and most unexpectedly, regularly playing football. In fact, while reading the diaries for 1916, I actually began to think that ‘playing football’ was a euphemism for some sort of military tactic. But of course, such ‘games’ would not only have improved physical skills, but also increased cohesion within the battalion and improved the soldiers’ morale. There were also descriptions of church visits, inspections, parades and horse shows (which the local population often came to watch), some of which had to be cancelled due to last-minute manoeuvres, and soldiers occasionally helped local farmers with harvests, in return for food and grazing.

74300666_3Horse show behind the lines (c) National Libraries of Scotland

The British army war diaries, which have only been available for the general public since 2014, can be read in situ at the National Archives in Kew, or can be ordered on-line for the price of a pint of beer. They are not always easy to decipher as some of the entries have been written (or scrawled) in pencil, and individual officers varied in how much information they recorded. Without prior military knowledge, it can also be challenging to follow many of the manoeuvres described, and the very matter-of-fact descriptions sometimes makes it difficult to work out when the important events are taking place. But to anyone wanting to know more about an ancestor’s movements during that period, they are certainly worthwhile reading, particularly if key battle dates are known. It is also relatively easy to plot the movements of troops if a detailed map of the area described can be accessed at the same time. Thus the diaries are an invaluable guide to visiting the battlefields, something I hope to do at some point in the future.

74300538_3British cavalry waiting for the order to move up (c) SNL

57_3British cavalry preparing to advance (c) SNL

And so it was that I found myself honing in on the 8th August 1918, when  I saw (with a horrible thrill) that for the first time in the diary the officer in charge had simply written Battle Front in the space designated for the name of the town or village in which the 19th Hussars were billeted. To follow the Battle of Amiens in ‘real time’ was an uncanny feeling, particularly in light of the fact that we know what those who were fighting cannot. I am able to read about the conflict, knowing that the war would soon come to an end and my grandfather would survive. Yet, how harrowing it must be for those who are following the hour-by-hour descriptions of a battle where their ancestors lost their lives.

74408646_3Cavalry patrols advancing over open countryside (c) SNL

74407759_3 (2)Cavalry passing Albert Cathedral, August 1918, Tom Aitken (c) SNL

Some of the notes taken during the battle were particularly descriptive. For example, at 7pm on the evening of the 8th of August, the officer in charge wrote: Enemy aeroplanes appeared in large numbers, as many as 20 or 30 being in the air above us at the same time, and commenced shooting at our horses, no damage. A few of our Scouts (S.E.5’s) were in among them, and we had the satisfaction of seeing one machine burst into flames at a height of about 1,500 feet, and fall rapidly down on the west side of the valley in which the horses were standing. The pilot jumped out and fell a little further looking like a little rag.

74407355_3British scouting planes (S.E.5s), France 1918, David McLellan (c) SNL

But perhaps the notes that enthralled me the most were those which captured the often petty-sounding (but obviously important for discipline and morale) issues of everyday life on the Western Front. Soldiers were admonished for smoking while on horseback, for shooting rabbits in the French countryside, for not changing their socks within a 24 hour period. And so the list of regulations and demeanours went on. Food was also an important topic for the troops; for example, on the 2nd of May, 1918, the reporting officer wrote the following: Information received that the peanut cake now being issued, is better boiled, this producing a less irritating and purging effect. Day passed quietly. I don’t think he realised the unintended humour of these two, possibly unrelated, statements!

74406582_3Cavalry soldiers relaxing, while their horses graze (c) SNL

A family anecdote relating to my grandfather’s time in the army which I have always found particularly fascinating is an event which took place on a cold winter’s morning when my grandfather was coming home on leave. As Sidney was walking through the suburban streets of south London in his cavalry uniform, there was a commotion when the local milkman’s horse slipped on the ice and fell over. Knowing that a fallen horse is in a difficult situation – especially on ice – and that it needs to be helped up onto its feet before it does any damage to itself, Sidney ran over to the horse and kneeled on its neck. This was presumably to prevent the animal struggling, and would have been second nature to him after his army training – as to lose a horse in wartime is obviously a grave concern. However, it would appear that the milkman was not best pleased to see this soldier diving onto his horse, and used some choice swearwords to show his disapproval.

img004Edwardian milkman, Norwood Dairies, South London

4f02678fe8e81fda7a561677109e2816--war-horses-climbingHorse falling down railway embankment, Western Front 1917-18,

Although everyone in the family seemed to find this tale quite funny, I have always thought it rather sad. I wonder if this is because it illustrates the different worlds that the two men inhabited. Sidney would have been proud of his equine skills and no doubt believed that his role in the army was for the greater good; the milkman may have felt that he was being shown up by this younger serviceman, and may have had conflicted emotions about not actively fighting in the war himself (despite the fact he may have been too old for service). For soldiers coming home on leave from the front, it must have been a strange, unsettling experience.

But perhaps it was even harder when the war was finally over.

74408227_3 (3)A cavalry patrol (c) SNL

To be continued next month in Portrait of my Grandfather as a Civilian.

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2018

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