At first glance, this is a simply a lovely photograph of a proud-looking elderly gentleman and a young bride on her wedding day, but behind the smiles is a remarkable … and tragic story.
The gentleman is Thomas Liddle; my great great grandfather, and the woman is my grandmother Gertrude Liddle, pictured on the day she married Eric Kirby in August 1934.
This is not just a random family snapshot though; Gertrude was given away by her grandfather, because her father had died when “Gertie” was just nine years of age.
William Liddle was born in Darlington on this very day in 1885, the third oldest of ten children born to Thomas and his wife Annie (née Trotter). He married Gertrude Horton in 1910, and by the time the census was taken the following year, the couple had set up home in a house on Cockerton Green. William was working as a cellarman for a wine and spirit merchant, and my gran was born on 9 March 1911 (she was barely three-weeks old when the enumerator called…).
William and Gertrude had three other children: Vera (in 1914), William (in 1916) and Leslie, the birth of the last-named being recorded during the first half of 1920; yet within months of becoming a father for the fourth time, William had passed away…
One of the causes of death (on 6 September) was given as “phlebitis”, which had resulted in an eight-day stay in hospital. Many years ago, I had heard that his condition may have been as a result of complications following injuries sustained in the First World War, but I wasn’t prepared for the awful truth that was revealed in William’s pension records.
On 1 August 1917, William was in the Belgian town of Poperinge. It was an important rail centre behind the front line, used for distributing supplies and billeting troops, Poperinge had been a target for German long-range artillery, but on 31 July 1917, the town and surrounding areas were bombed by enemy aircraft. The Allies launched an attack on German lines, which marked the start of the Third Battle of Ypres, one of the most controversial and costly offensives of the First World War. The heaviest fighting would be concentrated around the village of Passchendaele; and this is the better-known name of the battle that ended in November 1917, with the combined loss of over half a million lives…
William was injured on the first full day of fighting, and the immediate sense of foreboding came from the title of the first document I found: “Medical Report on an Invalid”…
I’m not sure that the bare statistics – shocking as they are – convey the true horror of war; for me, that comes from reading individual stories or experiences, trying to comprehend how a few words represent a life that has been extinguished or changed forever in the cruellest blinking of a proverbial eye, thinking about the resulting devastation for the family that is left behind … then multiply all that half a million times.
William’s injury – sustained on the first full day of fighting – was described as the “amputation of right arm at shoulder”.
Just six words … with such far-reaching consequences.
The graphic report continues: “… arm amputated on Aug 2nd. Aug 4th gangrene set in in ant[erior] muscle flap. Flap was excised. Sep 22nd excision of head of humerus” (“excise” means to completely remove – in medical terms).
It was difficult to read, and all sorts of images started to flash through my mind. The next section of the report described William as being 5’9” tall, with light blue eyes and light brown hair; information that suddenly made those mental images even more real – especially as the only two pictures I have are creased and stained black and white portraits (and this is one of them).
What I found really surprising is that details of William’s injury (both the cause and extent) were never passed down to subsequent generations. The loss of limb would have been impossible to hide; maybe there was some social stigma, I don’t know, but in my eyes William was a hero.
William was awarded the Victory medal, as well as the 1914-15 Star and British War medal – although it would seem unlikely that these were any great source of comfort for Gertrude (above), who just three years after her husband returned from Belgium was facing life as a 33-year old widow with four children to raise…
It is hard to believe that things could have got any worse for Gertrude, but in August 1923, she had to deal with the loss of her elder son William, who was crushed to death after slipping and falling from the coupling bar of a traction engine that was on its way to the annual Cockerton fair.
He was seven-years old…
I can’t even begin to imagine how you can cope with the death of a husband and child in such traumatic circumstances, but over the decades that followed, Gertrude displayed genuinely humbling courage and selflessness. In her own quiet and dignified way, she devoted her own life to giving her family the best chance she possibly could. Gertrude never remarried – in fact, to the best of my knowledge she never had another relationship – and by the time she passed away in 1983 (aged 96), she had been widowed for almost 63 years.
Gertrude’s slight stature belied her incredible strength and resolve and I am fortunate that she lived long enough for me to visit her, spend time with her, and most importantly remember her.
Everyone’s family history will include stories of remarkable people and events that have helped to shape our own lives. One picture can paint a thousand words – in this case, the image at the top of the page tells (in exactly 1,000 words) the story of two people who weren’t even in the photo.
This blog is dedicated to William and Gertrude Liddle, from your proud great grandson Richard, with much love x