Alan Crosby: The legacy of the First World War

By Guest, 11 July 2014 - 9:29am

Alan Crosby reflects on how the lives of his grandparents were irrevocably changed by the First World War, and what that means for him

Dr Alan Crosby is the editor of the Local Historian and a columnist for WDYTYA? MagazineThursday 10 July 2014
Alan Crosby
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Boys from Eton College in Berkshire play the mysterious 'Wall Game' in 1906

Eton College pupils play the mysterious Wall Game in 1906 – how many of these lives were lost or changed by the First World War? (Credit: Alamy)

“Alas, regardless of their doom, The little victims play! No sense have they of ills to come, Nor care beyond today”. So wrote Thomas Gray in 1742.

Perhaps surprisingly, he was commenting on boys at Eton College (the doom of 19 of them was to become Prime Minister, including the present incumbent!).

But it is deeply disturbing to think how things were in the early summer of 1914. We know exactly what was to come, what fate was to befall many millions of ordinary people. They had no idea. I wonder where my grandparents were in that last golden summer before catastrophe ravaged their world, “regardless of their doom...”

Living in the east end of Manchester, in a terraced street in the teeming working class district of Openshaw, my grandmother May was a dark-eyed girl of 16. She was bright – always did well at school – but had left at the age of 12 because that’s what working class girls did in those days.

She had a boyfriend, Jack, who was a hairdresser, and they were about to get engaged. They duly did so, but he was not my grandfather, for the first day of the Somme in July 1916 put an end to Jack’s short life. May’s whole world was destined to be shattered by the war.

Alex, the young man who was later to be my grandfather, lived not far away, though as yet they did not know each other. But one day, near the end of the war, Alex and his best mate in the army came home on a short leave. The best mate was May’s brother. He introduced Alex and the rest, as they say, is history – my history.

Alex was the eldest surviving child of eight: three had died in infancy. Like all his family, he was expected to work in the engineering industry – the area made boilers and railway engines, riveted plates and steam cranes. The war would change all that, shaping not just personal relationships, but also his working life.

Just 25 miles away, in the fading spa town of Buxton in Derbyshire, 21-year old Nora Dean was at a loose end. A clever scholar, she’d attended the Cavendish High School for Girls, but left at 16 to work at Milligan’s Drapery Stores – other girls were getting jobs and she, too, wanted the glamour. It was a disaster.

Later she became, briefly, a student-teacher (the ‘training on the job’ so common in the Edwardian period), because her elder brother and sister were both teachers, but that didn’t suit either. Attractive, eloquent and passionately romantic, Nora found Buxton very much a backwater. The war would put an end to that, too. A decade later she was living on the other side of the world.

And there, far away, was a young man of 21, working as a fireman on the Canadian Pacific Railway, shovelling coal on huge locomotives as they toiled up the steep grades and high passes of the Rockies, between Calgary, Banff and Vancouver.

Born in London, educated at King Edward VI Grammar School, Birmingham (in the same English group as JRR Tolkien), and now exiled across the Atlantic, the young George Crosby lived with his widowed mother in Calgary. Not just clever but brilliant (Tolkien came top of the group, of course, but grandfather was third in the English class), what did he think about as he laboured in the smoke and heat and sweat, as magnificent scenery passed by on the Kicking Horse Pass?

He didn’t think of war, but instead dreamed of becoming a lawyer, of reading for the bar, of forging a glittering career and perhaps of a political future, for Canadian lawyers had a habit of making good and becoming powerful in politics.

He never, in his wildest imaginings, thought of a shell-blasted battlefield in France, convalescence in a spa town in Derbyshire, and being nursed by a lonely, passionate, romantic girl in her early 20s.

Four lives, all changed irrevocably by the First World War. And without them, I would not be writing these words.

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 edition of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine


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