My Great-Grandfather: The War Hero

Richard Benson's coal miner great-grandfather was one of almost nine million men who fought for the British army during the First World War, and one of more than two million to be wounded. A century after Private Parkin first marched into battle, this is the story of his torturous journey from the Derbyshire pits to the Western Front and home again, to something less than a hero's welcome

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My great-grandfather was a Yorkshire coal miner who volunteered for the British Army in the summer of 1914, won a medal for bravery at Passchendaele, and was discharged on medical grounds, half-mad, half-blind and full of shrapnel, six months before the end of the war.

Despite the discharge, some older members of my family used to say he had been so tough that bullets had bounced off him.

If you laughed, they'd say no, it's right, it was an old tale, he got hit and nowt happened to him, and then he won his medal. This was in the Seventies and Eighties in south Yorkshire, when I was a kid.

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My great-grandfather was already long gone by then, having died from infections in his injuries in 1933, and all the people who told the story have died since.

But a few years ago, I began asking around about him, his medal and his reputation, wondering how much heroism was family legend, and how much, if any, was real.

I was trying to write a book about the family.

Most of the men in the generations since 1900 had been miners, and I wanted to write from their perspective about how Britain had changed through the 20th century.

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I thought that my great-grandfather's experience in the war would be only one small part of that, a couple of weeks' concentrated research maybe and then on to the Twenties; after all, in truth I wasn't all that interested in the First World War beyond his involvement in it.

That was four years ago, and the book is now finished. However, like a lot of men who start off with a temporary ancestry.com subscription and end up wandering the wet fields of Flanders with a Major and Mrs Holt's Battlefield Guide, I now find that I can't quite let it go.

His name was Walter Parkin, and he was born in a village south of Sheffield in 1889.

There were seven kids in all. When Walter was 12, his father, who laboured in the Sheffield pits and on farms, abandoned them and his wife, and sailed to Australia; Mrs Parkin took in a lodger, and had three more children with him.

Walter kept himself to himself and when he left school, he went to work on a farm.

Not long after starting, he came home to find his mother and stepfather packing the few things they owned into boxes. "We're going to Doncaster," she said. "You mun' look after thyself now, tha's old enough."

He was 14.

Hearing that there was good money to be earned at the new pit in Shirebrook, a village 20 miles away in Derbyshire, Walter Parkin walked there and got work maintaining the 600-yard-deep shafts.

In those days, the booming pit villages were rough, like Wild West settlements, but Walter avoided the pubs and shebeens and went to chapel.

In time, he became a faith healer, and when a brown-eyed, raven-haired, 16-year-old domestic servant called Annie presented him with a sore thumb, he began a courtship that two years later led to their marriage, and the birth of two daughters, Winnie and Millie.

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Walter was 25 and had been married for five years when Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August, 1914.

The German Army had invaded Belgium in order to invade France, and Britain was committed to defending Belgium.

As Max Hastings points out in his book Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, we may now consider the war so horrific that the differences between the sides seem unimportant but, at the time, men like Walter believed in both principles and the fear of a belligerent Germany.

His experience would indeed be horrific but, according to Winnie, my grandma, he remained proud of his service throughout his life.

He did come to feel bitter, but the bitterness was directed at what happened afterwards.

His army service records turned out to have been among those that were burned in a fire at the War Office warehouse in 1940.

However, there were four medals: the British War Medal and Allied Victory Medal, awarded to all who served in the Great War; the 1914–15 Star, awarded to those who served during those years; and the Military Medal, the other ranks' version of the Military Cross, awarded for bravery in land battles, which gave his number and regiment (14171, Lincolnshire).

The reverse of the 1914-15 Star, showinf Parkin's number, name, rank and unit 

By patiently researching regimental histories and battalion war diaries, and cross-referencing family anecdotage, I was able to get quite a fair way with those.

I found that after training in Grimsby, Walter sailed to France in February 1915, probably as part of a reinforcement draft sent to replace casualties.

His regiment was first billeted at Laventie, a small French market town on the flat, wet, potato-growing land east of Lille, and moved between reserve positions and holding trenches for two weeks until they were sent up to the front to fight in a three-day battle to capture the village of Neuve Chapelle.

This was the first properly planned British offensive of the Great War; somewhere in the trenches on the other side was a young German soldier called Adolf Hitler.

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In some ways, the battle was typical of what would follow, an initial breakthrough eventually amounting to little gain as equipment and communication systems failed.

Fifteen officers and 268 men of the regiment were killed or wounded, Walter among them; at the time I couldn't discover exactly what he was treated for, but after the battle he was sent to a hospital in Rouen.

Around this time, he wrote home to Annie. "I suppose you will have read about the big charge that has been made," he said. "I was amongst the leaders in that, and we had a lively time of it, I can tell you, but it was a surprise packet for them."

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It is, of course, quite difficult to understand how a 25-year-old coal miner felt when standing in a French trench as German soldiers tried to kill him in 1915, but the reality of the setting hit me when I went to France to look around Laventie and Neuve Chapelle.

The first thing I noticed was the system of drainage ditches beside the roads; most of the ditches were about three feet deep, and in a February of average rainfall, they all held at least a foot of water; what state would trenches have been in, particularly those without pumps?

Then there was a sense of randomness to the location that must have affected the soldiers as well.

It doesn't strike you until you go there how close the trench warfare was to Britain; Ypres, for example, is only 160 miles from the centre of London, roughly the same distance from the capital to Sheffield.

These days, you can take the train and be there in a little more than two hours.

But in places like Neuve Chapelle, the dank, sparsely-populated land stretches away for miles with no distinguishing landmarks to suggest what exactly you might be fighting for, or why you are fighting for it there.

Standing in a small military cemetery off a lane in the village, looking at the rows of headstones for Lincolnshire Regiment men in their early twenties, I thought I could understand why they'd sung the famous, endless troop song, to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne":

We're here because,
We're here because,
We're here because,
We're here.

Discharged from hospital, Walter rejoined his battalion holding established trenches around Neuve Chapelle, until February 1916, when he went home on leave. In the early summer, shortly after receiving a letter from Annie telling him she was expecting another baby, he was moved south to Gommecourt for the start of the Battle of the Somme.

Party of Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, l July 1916. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Here, according to stories passed down to my mum and aunt from my grandmother, he was put at the head of the troops and, along with many others, given the job of lying down on the enemy barbed wire so his comrades could run around and over him.

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Perhaps, perversely, this made him less vulnerable; he survived despite over 6,000 – more than half – of the men in his 46th Division being killed or injured in the fighting that would eventually claim one million lives and see the Allies advance only about six miles further forward.

Walter's battalion was withdrawn to refit early on.

Around the same time he was promoted to Lance Corporal, a letter arrived telling him he had another daughter, Olive.

It had been a busy couple of years.

At home, the local newspapers, which had run sunny, optimistic coverage of the war in August and September 1914, carried lists of the area's dead on the front page.

I struggled to find records of Walter's medal for bravery, so engaged a proper researcher called Chris Baker.

Chris worked out that Walter must have received the medal in the autumn of 1917, having been moved up to the Ypres salient for the three-month struggle now known as the Battle of Passchendaele, after the village seven miles north-east of Ypres itself.

Even in the context of the First World War, Passchendaele is notorious for its conditions, the landscape little more than an expanse of cratered mud, pooled water and battle wreckage.

At dawn one morning in autumn 1917, a lieutenant led a section of men up a wooden ladder and across the stewing bog of limbs and bones towards the German lines.

After crossing No Man's Land, the men splashed over and around him and bore down on the enemy trench, but in front of Walter, the lieutenant somehow became tangled in the barbed metal.

Crouching to avoid fire, Walter moved to him. He shouted at the lieutenant to be still, and tugged at the wire.

Grenades exploded and up ahead, British men went down under fire. Again Walter pulled at the wire, and eventually the lieutenant rolled free.

He ordered a retreat, but Walter was caught in a blast and became entangled himself.

He wouldn't recall how it happened; he only remembered the struggling, his clothing in shreds, barbs ripping his skin, his back cut and bleeding, and then unconsciousness.

Stretcher bearers struggling through the mud near Boesinghe, August 1, 1917, during the Battle of Pilckem Ridge (part of the Third Battle of Ypres). (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Walter was sent back to England for hospital treatment, his back damaged and his lacerated skin infected.

His lieutenant wrote a letter to his unit's commanding officer recommending Walter for the Military Medal, and its award was announced in the London Gazette on 28 January 1918.

The medal, suspended on a red, white and blue ribbon, is a silver disc bearing the king's head and on the reverse the words: "For bravery in the field."

It was as wide as his daughter Winnie's palm.

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Now 96 years on, it's among cotton wool in a tin box at my aunt Lynda's house in an ex-mining village near Barnsley.

I went to Ypres and Passchendaele to see the place where Walter had saved the officer.

Looking at the fields and the village with its modern houses on a dull day under a wintry sky, I wanted to feel something but I can't say I did, really.

I'm not sure many people do; it's interesting that there are fewer ghost stories associated with the Flanders battlefields than one might expect given all the death and all the subsequent visitors.

It was in Ypres town, rebuilt from total ruin, that it got to me.

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Before I went, and drove out from Ypres to where the front lines had been, I hadn't fully taken in the routine and work-like nature of the soldier's lives.

The films have taught us to think about the terror of combat, and make it easy to imagine it as a nightmare you went through and came out of.

But even if most of their time was spent in trenches, the men were still on a sort of shift pattern: a few days' rest in the town, more days working in the support trenches, and then a route march or lorry ride out of the town gates and back across the mud to be shot at again – perhaps in the same place they'd been two weeks ago, where best mates had been killed beside them.

Somehow, the thought of the terror being organised in these slogging schedules, the thought of marching back out of the gates made it seem even worse.

Today, it certainly makes worrying about a forthcoming awkward work meeting seem pitiful.

Ypres, a beautiful town, is quite touristy now.

There are streets of souvenir shops selling 1914–1918 T-shirts, fridge magnets, ashtrays, Belgian chocolates in the shape of poppies and sticks of rock with a poppy down the middle.

There is Passchendaele beer – "when opening a bottle of Passchendaele please hold a minute of silence to commemorate those who fell on the battlefield" – besides the guided tours and the shells, guns and other relics that are still dug up from the surrounding fields.

A Canadian called Steve Douglas, who runs the British Grenadier Bookshop and the Salient Tours company, told me it began to change in the Nineties, for three reasons: the baby-boomer generation had reached the age when people become curious about their family history; the internet had made research into the subject easier; and schools across the world had begun to feature the First World War in lessons.

The biggest single group of visitors is now schoolchildren, with many of the souvenirs taken home as gifts for older generations in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

As more people become interested, the attitude toward remembrance seems to be altering.

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Since 1928, at 8pm every night at Ypres' Menin Gate, a vast memorial to the British Empire troops killed in the Great War who have no known graves, a bugler has played the "Last Post".

On some nights, a large crowd gathers, on others there may be just one or two people.

For about 70 years, the end of the music was met with silence as those who came stood, unspeaking, with their thoughts before drifting away.

These days, a crowd of any size tends to applaud. You have to let people respond to loss however they feel is right, so long as it doesn't harm anyone else, but I have to say that to me, a round of applause seemed a strange way to acknowledge what happened here.

Walter returned to the front in a new unit, the 10th (Service) Battalion (The Grimsby Chums).

He was in the forward positions at Arras in France one foggy night in March 1918 when the Germans launched the biggest barrage of the entire war.

Mortars, smoke canisters, tear gas, mustard gas, chlorine gas – a million shells in five hours hit an area of 150 sq m, causing 7,500 Allies casualties even before the German infantry went in.

Walter was caught in an explosion, his body ripped with shrapnel, spine damaged and skin burned by mustard gas.

Inside his lungs and bronchial tubes, the gas stripped off the mucous membrane; his skin turned greenish-yellow and blistered, although he couldn't see it because he was blinded (another effect of the gas was to glue the eyes together). It was back to Blighty again, this time temporarily blind and unable to walk.

He was honourably discharged on 2 May and, after a long spell at a military hospital near Oswestry, he was sent home to Shirebrook.

He still could not see and injuries to his spine and shrapnel in his legs meant he could hardly walk.

Winnie had pined for her father and now tried to rehabilitate him, holding his hand and leading him on walks around the village, sharing the lanes with other kids and their wounded, blinded fathers.

She was nine years old, and Walter wasn't even 30.

In 1918, British men returned from the war to find food scarce and prices rising so that their wages were being devalued.

Miners – and at this point, the coal industry employed one-in-10 British working men – saw a high demand for coal that would enrich the government and mine owners, while their own pay and conditions worsened.

For ex-soldiers like Walter, the situation could be particularly bad.

Old wounds often burst open under the strain of bending and lifting, while head injuries caused dizziness and fainting in the heat and air pressure underground.

When injuries were caused by work, most pit managers would sanction compensation, but when war veterans were injured, the managers often claimed the responsibility lay with the armed forces.

The forces then counter-claimed that the injuries were the fault of the mine owners and thus the men who fought the Great War for civilisation and freedom were left unable to work and unentitled to any support.

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From 1919, a series of disputes, strikes, lock-outs and government interventions in the coalfields culminated in the General Strike of 1926.

Widespread poverty set in which would not lift until coal was needed for the steel mills and foundries making arms to fight the Second World War, 13 years later.

Walter and Annie had a son, Ralph, and moved the family to Goldthorpe in south Yorkshire in the Twenties.

The ex-soldier could only work intermittently because of his injuries, but took part in the strikes and felt shocked beyond belief when politicians publicly vilified the miners and their supporters.

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When the MP Nancy Astor (Samantha Cameron's stepfather's grandmother) disparagingly dismissed the miners' case with, "What do those earthworms want now?", Walter told Winnie about it, and years later Winnie would pass the story onto her grandchildren.

I remember her telling me and my cousins about it, the endurance of the tale one reason why British miners regarded the national strikes of the Seventies and Eighties as chapters of the same story.

It was this experience, not the war service, that embittered Walter Parkin, and the same was true for many thousands of other veterans.

1926: An armoured vehicle in a London street used to protect goods deliveries during the General Strike. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Walter died from tuberculosis of the spine in February 1933, but in all the years since 1918 he'd walked, if able, to a war memorial on Armistice Day.

Years later, Winnie would remember other Armistice Day mornings when he was bedridden, hearing him force himself out of bed to get dressed.

At 11am, alone in his bedroom, he would salute his comrades, and then march up and down the room before falling back onto the bed.

"We ended greatly disillusioned as to the nature of the adventure," wrote ex-soldier Henry Mellersh in A Schoolboy into War in 1978, "but still believing that the cause was right and we had not fought in vain."

I think it may be worth remembering those words this year, when the commemorations of the Great War's 100th anniversary get underway, and the newspapers and campaign groups start up with the competitive patriotism and witch hunts against people not wearing poppies.

It is quite possible to have been a British patriot while loathing Winston Churchill and being an active trade unionist, just as it is possible to show your gratitude by applauding or by standing in silence.

If there was a point to the Great War, it might well have been to allow us to choose how we express our feelings about our country as we like.

And if we really want to honour those fallen men from the First World War, we could start by treating contemporary veterans better and (if only) finding some decent politicians to represent us.

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Between 1916 and 1918, a group of British soldiers on the Western Front used a printing press they'd discovered to produce a now legendary magazine called The Wipers Times.

A collected set of editions is currently in print, and if  you want to know how ordinary soldiers actually thought and felt about the war, this is without question the best place to start.

First-time readers always notice that while the pages are full of typical British piss-taking, they are almost entirely devoid of anger.

The only note of resentment in the magazine's pages comes in the attacks on, as the editor of the most recent compilation puts it, "the lurid, self-congratulatory despatches by certain journalists who lauded themselves more than the men whose efforts they were meant to record."

The journalist most often targeted, it is worth noting, is William Beach Thomas, who was then the war correspondent of the highly patriotic Daily Mail.

There is a postscript to my story about Walter.

After the research and conversations, I felt I had enough material to write about my great-grandfather, but of course nothing had ever come up about the bullets bouncing off him story.

I had asked everyone involved if they knew what it might have meant, and in the end put it down to foolishness, perhaps even a bit of vanity.

Every man who served would have had their own story to tell, and if I was honest, I supposed I had wanted mine to be as individual and dramatic as possible.

Trying to make it real, I had clutched at a scrap of what was obviously family anecdotage.

I put away the idea, and started to write Walter's story, starting with the evening when Annie brought her poorly thumb to him in the chapel in Shirebrook one spring night in 1907.

And then, out of the blue, on 22 January 2011, I received an email from Chris Baker, the researcher.

"Dear Richard," it read, "a pal of mine who lives in North Nottinghamshire has found this for us."

It was a story from the Mansfield Chronicle dated 25 March, 1915:

"Saved by his Button: A Shirebrook Soldier's Experiences:

"Knocking about in hospital at Rouen after having been shot in the chest, Private Walter Parkin of the 2nd Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment, writes to his wife a most cheerful letter, and also sends as a memento the button that has saved his life. Accompanying the valuable metal, which has been pierced through, is the deadly bullet, with spiked lead, and the two will doubtless be kept by Mrs Parkin, who resides in Shirebrook Market-place, and handed down to children's children as family heirlooms.

"The souvenirs are to be seen in Mr Mark Wilkinson's shop window in King Edward Street, Shirebrook.

Private Parkin spoke of the button, which he hoped had been received, as his friend, and added that the bullet came to stay with him after it had done the damage.

A pal of his had said that if a bullet was for you it would go round corners to get at you, and it was no use trying to get out of the way. He hoped for better luck next time.

"Writing in cheerful vein, Private Parkin says: 'I am all right except for a slight wound in the chest. I am knocking about in the hospital and will be off back in about a fortnight's time, so don't worry, lass.

Another mate of mine was left on the battlefield and we came off best in the end.

I have got the bullet and button. I will send them on for you. I don't think we shall be long before we are back again, if we go on as we are doing now.

They will soon have to give in. Keep your spirits up. They have not broken mine, as heady a fire as I have been under, and I don't think they will. Kiss the children for me, and remember me to all at home'."

I had checked the local papers in the newspaper library, and couldn't understand how I'd missed it.

I also have no idea what happened to the button and bullet.

But there it was, in black and yellowed-white; a bullet had, in its own way, bounced off him.

Sorry, Walter.

I stood up from the computer and walked to the window and for a long time just looked out at the street.

It was an ordinary day, everybody going about their business.

A woman walked past pushing a kid in a baby buggy, and down the street the postman was delivering letters.

It was peaceful.

Across 96 years, I saluted Lance Corporal Walter Parkin, and then sat down to rewrite his story. 

The Valley: A Century in the Life of a Mining Family (Bloomsbury) is published on 24 April

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