Every now and again, words written by men who survived the slaughter on the battlefields a century ago echo through the years. Relationships made in appalling conditions can cascade through the generations.
Many visitors to Lochnagar Crater, for example, will have seen a slim volume called Reflections of a Veteran, a collection of stories and poems by Harry Fellows from Nottingham, who served with the 12th Battalion northumberland Fusiliers, and who saw dreadful action at Loos and on the Somme, at Fricourt and at Mametz Wood.
In one of his stories, called ‘Just the Ticket’, Harry tells how in early 1917 his machine gun unit had advanced to a village called Boiry Becquerelle, near the German Hindenburg Line. One of his team was a Geordie called Dick Turnbull, a former pitman who Harry described as ‘one of the finest ‘marrers’ a man ever had at a period when one needed good pals to keep one’s sanity’. (‘Marrer’ is Geordie for ‘friend’.)
Shells hit where they were sleeping. Privates John Dyson and George Gunnell were killed, and Dick was badly injured. According to Harry, the medics said it would take a miracle for him to survive. Dick did survive – but he lost both legs.
A few months later, Harry was injured and spent a long time in hospital. Eventually, near Christmas, 1917, he was back at the northumberland Fusiliers Reserve Battalion in the north east, and decided to visit Dick.
Harry picked up a ticket to a benefit football match for Dick.
But when he called at Dick’s terraced house in Wallsend, Dick wasn’t there; he was at Roehampton, having his new legs fitted.
Harry met Dick’s wife, Lily, the woman Dick spoke about in the trenches as ‘Wor lass’. They had tea in a small room with an old-fashioned grate and snow-white cloth on the table. ‘I asked Mrs Turnbull’, wrote Harry, ‘how she could cope with the future.The words of her response have burned in my mind ever since that day’. “There are five war widows in this street; I’ve got him back”, and holding out her hands, “whilst I’ve got these I’ll see that neither he nor the bairns go hungry”. She was a very brave woman.’
Then Harry wrote: ‘Should any of the descendants of this brave couple chance to read this, I do hope they will remember them, as I knew them, true Geordies, the salt of the earth!’
So what happened next? Harry and Dick lost touch. Harry thought of writing, but assumed Dick’s house on Seventh Street had been demolished. He also admitted that, in a way, he’d prefer to remember Dick as he knew him in the war – ‘the quiet man with the cynical smile’. Dick died in 1956.
End of story? Not quite – thanks to a battlefield visitor called George Heron from Middlesbrough, who became one of the stalwarts of the Friends of Lochnagar. In the 1980s, when Harry was 90, George made contact with one of Dick’s sons, Stanley, and arranged for Harry to meet Stan in Newcastle, with Harry’s son Mick and Mick’s wife Kaye. It was reported in a local newspaper.
Harry was thrilled.
He passed on to the family the football ticket to the benefit match for Dick, and despite badly failing eyesight, he later typed a letter to Stan: ‘I sincerely hope that it will not be the last of our get-togethers… I would have liked to have more time to spend in Newcastle as, during the conversation we had…I gathered that some of the places I learned to know are still in existence like the old barracks. Still, there is always another time’.
Sadly, there was wasn’t another time. Within a year, in 1987, Harry died.
His ashes were scattered where he’d fought, inside Mametz Wood. One of his poems is always read at the July 1st commemoration at Lochnagar Crater.
End of story? Not quite. Spurred on by Harry’s reference to the ‘descendants of this brave couple’, Lochnagar Crater Today enlisted the help of genealogist Alan Hawkins to see if we could trace some of the people Harry addressed in his powerful message.
As a result, we contacted Lynn Hutchinson, Stan’s daughter, and her daughter, Kayleigh Sansom. They both still live near Dick’s neighbourhood in north Tyneside.
They were deeply moved. Kayleigh said: “I just wanted to say thank you, because up until now my mother hasn’t been able to face looking through all my grandad’s things and now she’s had a reason to. It’s done her the world of good and we’ve all had a good laugh and cry about memories. So thank you – you don’t know how much it means.”
Bill remembers his grandad well:
“When I was growing up we used to visit gran and grandfather most weekends. Grandfather was a rather taciturn man and didn’t interact very much with the children I suppose because of his infirmity.
“He wore a pair of artificial legs which he always took off as soon as he got in the door, and would sit at the table in long johns with thick white stump socks covering his knees, as he had only lost the bottom part of both legs.
“My grandfather walked with two artificial legs and used a walking stick to help with his balance; he stood six feet tall. He never owned a wheelchair as far as I know, although there was a family story that when he came out of hospital he and other amputees used to race their wheelchairs down a place called Crow Bank in Wallsend; if you ever visit Crow Bank, you’ll wonder how they managed because it’s very steep. But once he got his prosthetics, the wheelchair was returned to the hospital.
“He was a life-long teetotaller, but spent most of his days in the Wallsend Coronation Club where he was on the committee and was involved in the lotteries etc and organizing the children’s Christmas parties, club outings etc, and all-in-all keeping himself busy.
“As I recall, he smoked a lot but as I got older and he realised I was quite a good scholar he used to let me help him count the lottery money that he brought home as big bags of coins, and also enter the figures into his various ledgers.”
Bill provided this picture of Dick taken in the early 1950s. Dick is standing next to his wife Lily and daughter Ethel, who would have been one of the ‘bairns’ Harry met on his visit in 1917. Bill is in the front row, on the left, beside his cousin Thomas. Lily is holding Ethel’s son David.
The Fellows family’s commitment to the Friends of Lochnagar spans the generations, and today, in 2018, members of the Fellows and Turnbull families are able to appreciate the bond forged on the battlefield by their ancestors.
The photograph of Harry on the front page of Reflections of a Veteran was taken by George Heron. It shows Harry by the headstones at Boyelles Communal Cemetery Extension for John Dyson and George Gunnell, killed by the same shell bursts which cost Dick Turnbull his legs.