The eulogy for George Harwood by the Chairman of the Friends of Lochnagar. 9th october 2015 – Whitley Bay.
In my experience, there has never been anyone quite like George.
I speak as a friend of 40 years, and also as Chairman of the Friends of Lochnagar, a group who help look after the Lochnagar Crater on the Somme – a cause to which George was a devoted, steadfast and loyal supporter.
And that one word, loyal, runs like a golden thread throughout George’s life.
As many will know, it took quite a while for George to get to know you. That period, it could be days, weeks or even months could be quite nerve-wracking. And then suddenly, you realised George had accepted you – shown mainly by a relentless and ruthless barrage of wicked mickey-taking at every opportunity.
There’s never been a friend as loyal as George. To me, he was like an elder brother, constantly looking out for me and fiercely protective and supportive. Especially so, as he thought all we southerners were soft, gullible, preferred Watneys Red Barrel over Newcastle Brown and were not fit to be let loose alone in the real world.
There were three areas crucial to George’s life. First, his immediate family -Debra, David and Vanessa – and he was so hugely proud of each of you. Then of course, the First World War and thirdly the Crater and the Friends of Lochnagar.
George never really recovered from the devastating blow of losing his beloved wife Lynda. He would go down to the churchyard each day and silently sit by her graveside – the pain rarely easing. He was accompanied by his faithful dog, Haig and earlier this year, sadly, Haig too, died.
George bore these blows with as much courage as I’ve seen any person bear. For George was, what to us southerners see, as typical ‘Geordie’, none more so than George. Enormously physically and mentally tough on the outside but soft and intensely emotional on the inside.
George would talk with both affection and sometimes distress about his time in his National Service in the Military Police. He had been a keen amateur boxer and I pity anyone who gave him lip but I have seen him weeping, half a century later, recounting the loss of friends in Suez and Cyprus. And it was his time spent in Cold-War Berlin that fostered his lifelong passion for jazz. It was there that he was first entertained by the greats, including Errol Garner and Duke Ellington.
But it was to his beloved veterans that George’s affection, admiration and loyalty knew no bounds. Many will know that as a historian of the Great War George was up there with the so-called experts and leading authors of our day. Yet George knew more than anybody I knew about the events, the people and the reality of that war – but rarely spoke in public of it. He quietly sat by as book after book came out – to his mind full of glaring errors and inaccuracies and only rarely, mainly in the bar of his beloved Hotel de la Paix in France would he voice his opinion, with an impressive authority that you knew was the truth.
To George, the truth was always paramount and integrity the highest prize of all. For unlike today’s generation of TV pundits and armchair generals, George was already interested in the war when they were still at school. Way back in the early 1950s George loved nothing better than walking the battlefields on pilgrimages with his beloved veterans, including one of his best friends, the hugely respected Tom easton. George revered those men, mainly northumberland Fusiliers. In the 1970s and 80s I would travel up to Newcastle and George would arrange for me to interview them. Remarkable, invariably modest men from Tyneside who had memorably witnessed the explosion of the Lochnagar Crater and gallantly and resolutely walked through the deadly hail of bullets to somehow survive the first day of the battle of the Somme.
In France, time and time again, wearing his faithful old army boots, polished daily to a mirror-finish, George walked in their footsteps across those same, hallowed killing fields. I remember once going with him with my son Jack, then a fit, lively teenager. We walked steadily for about 12 miles across muddy, ploughed fields with George never once slowing or tiring. Jack and I, totally exhausted, struggled vainly to keep up. That day, with his perceptive observations, his encyclopaedic knowledge of the terrain, the tactics and wealth of veterans’ anecdotes, I found I learnt more about the nature of the Somme battlefield than a hundred historians’ books could ever tell me.
It is little wonder that the motto of the Tyneside Scottish is also one that perfectly sums up George. Their motto is ‘Harder than Hammers.’ But it is George’s softer, emotional side that everyone often remembers.
In the stream of tributes that flooded in after news of his passing had spread, there were recurring themes. Those of his quiet kindness, consideration, warmth and generosity, especially with his time and knowledge to newer students of the war.
His dearest Friend of nearly 50 years, Michel Duthoit who owned the Hotel de la Paix sadly cannot be with us today. But to see the pair of them together endlessly chatting and laughing was priceless. I think today Michel still speaks his native French with a slight Geordie accent.
For many years, as some of you will know, George single-handedly edited (and often wrote) the magazine of the Friends of Lochnagar. It is this, called ‘New Chequers’, based on the original magazine of the 34th Division who fought for the Crater. George’s outstanding ‘New Chequers’ was a true labour of love – his personal tribute to the men he revered.
Many is the time he would ring me to say that his computer had crashed in the early hours of the morning, sometimes taking an entire new edition of the magazine with it. And often George would stay up all night troubleshooting the problem and patiently retrieving and re-assembling the words and pictures. Mind you, you should have heard the language. I think all the staff at Newcastle PC World dived for the exit when George strode through the door with that look on his face.
He did ‘New Chequers’ to the very highest academic standards – unequalled in my experience in its breadth of insight and historical accuracy. Each of the 37 editions is a remarkable testimony to both his dedication and his incredible knowledge and will remain his legacy to a further generation of Great War students and battlefield pilgrims alike.
In the late 1980s George was one of the founding members of the Friends of Lochnagar, offering shrewd advice and wisdom born of a wide range of experience in life. As you will know, he was a highly skilled engineer and ran a successful business for many years. He was especially invaluable to me personally, especially in the early years, with advice on establishing the Crater as a much-visited, non-commercial memorial site of the Great War. The Friends of Lochnagar, and several of them are here today, are a remarkable bunch of people and George was always proud of his enduring friendship with each of them. Sadly we lost another much-valued Friend, Treasurer Les Disbrey, just a few weeks ago.
We all did our best to support George through these last few years – as did his family and especially good neighbours and friends. He battled with the debilitating pain of cancer, often not helped by his diligent daily hoovering of his house – to honour a promise he once gave to Lynda. Never once complaining, you always felt better after talking to George.
One of the few things that got George upset was unjust or officious treatment of anyone vulnerable, whether it was from large stores, corporations, British Telecom or the local authorities. I remember years back when he felt Lynda had been disrespectfully spoken to on the phone he actually rushed down to the council offices, went up to the third floor and attempted to hang the unfortunate and terrified jobsworth from the window high above the car park, a practice frowned upon today.
So, dear George we will always remember you, always treasure those moments and priceless memories of happy times spent together. Of endless laughter at the Hotel de la Paix, on his 60th birthday when we all presented him with a large cake lovingly made in the shape of a bottle of his beloved Newcastle Brown – and he promptly burst into tears.
And of course, there were the profoundly sad times too, poignant and sometimes heart-breaking but still a privilege to be there and to be able to share them with him.
Dear George. Long may your unquenchable spirit, loyalty, integrity, and character – and your wicked sense of fun, live on in each of us – and your memory continue to inspire us all.