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Our family visit to the Somme in search of my grand-uncle who died 100 years ago

Von Gary Blackburn

At the end of the year we look back and remember those moments and encounters that were most special to us. I hope 2017 has been a good year for you as well. It truly has been a great year for me and my family.

You might have heard of “Little Britain” at my company ground of “Baumdienst Siebengebirge”? “Little Britain” is the place of Robin Hood’s hideaway, Mr. Bean’s Mini, the Queen is there, a three wheeler Reliant – and a 52 ton Centurion tank which used to be in peaceful possession of the Swiss army and I could not resist to buy it when I suddenly had the chance to purchase it. There has been a lot of media buzz in 2017 covering “Little Britain” and the Centurion.

I had lots of inspiring talks with customers, friends and tourists who came by to visit and I received many cheerful e-mails and letters. If you are interested you can find more info in our “Little Britain” blog here. It has been a very good experience to see that most people appreciate this Centurion decorated with white doves and red poppies as a monument for peace and freedom. This monument leads people to think and talk to each other. This autumn we have planted 20.000 tulips and daffodils as well as 15 million red poppies which will surround the monument in 2018. 

Our family visit to the Somme in search of my grand-uncle 

But there has been one very important experience this year that stands out and I would like to share with you now. Together with my wife and my kids Emily, William and Kevin we have been to a place that has affected the lives of our families as of millions of other families. We have been to the Somme in the north of France. The battle of the Somme has become a symbol for the senselessness of war, cruelty and grief that war brings to families.

From early childhood my grandmother and grandfather had told me about grand-uncle Charles Thomas Lancaster and that he had died as a soldier in France when he was only 18 years old. But as a young person I did not understand very much. This of course has changed and it is now my responsibility to tell my children about my grand-uncle so that the tragedy of war and my grand-uncle’s life and early death shall not be forgotten.

This year my family and my auntie uncle and cousin decided to find more about his destiny as a soldier at the Somme. So we went on a pilgrimage to find out more 100 years after his death. At the age of 16 my grand-uncle Charles Thomas Lancaster signed up to enlist with 10th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment. He had persuaded the recruiting officer he was actually 18. My grand uncle was among the many volunteers to replace the huge losses of life during the first two years of WW I in 1916. 

Charles Thomas Lancaster survived the Battle of the Somme to die the next year 

My grand-uncle Charles Thomas Lancaster was to take part in a battle of the Somme where more than 1.1 million people lost their lives within a few months, among them 420.000 British soldiers. Neither side won. The battle of the Somme should have been regarded as a warning and sign of even more “total wars” to come.

But we all tend to forget. My grand-uncle was lucky enough to survive the battle of the Somme as one of only a few soldiers left alive of the 10th Battalion. The attacks continued endlessly and while some ground was gained and lost again my grand-uncle Charles Thomas Lancaster was severely wounded and died in the early hours of April 29th, 1917. 

Please let me quote the author Brian James who wrote an article about our visit to Somme: “The family group lay a small cluster of freshly cut flowers at the base of Charles’s gravestone.  Heads bowed, they hold their own private minute of silent remembrance. They try to understand what they have seen during this pilgrimage – the endless white columns of war graves spread across the fields of France and Belgium. There is an overwhelming emotion of loss..”  

We are blessed that we live in more peaceful times than my grand uncle. It is our obligation to preserve peace and freedom for everyone. Then the losses of lives like that of my uncle hopefully were not in vain. I am very happy and thankful that my family was with me in France this year to share this experience and exchange our thoughts. Now let me wish you all the best for 2018 and may all your wishes come true!

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