My father was fifty-eight years old when I was born in 1948. I was twenty-one when he died in 1969.
In those intervening years he said nothing of his service during the Great War, a reticence shared by so many of his generation. Would I have been interested even if the subject had been raised? I somehow doubt it, but now regret missing the opportunity to hear at first hand whatever stories I may have been able to elicit from him.
My mother, twenty-eight years younger than my father, passed away eleven years ago. It was only then, whilst sorting through family papers, that I found his medals and other assorted paraphernalia from the First World War. I have been enthralled by the subject ever since.
Father was a cavalryman, joining the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers in 1912. At the outbreak of war he was amongst those first soldiers of the BEF to embark for France, sailing from Dublin on 15 August. He served for the duration of the hostilities, his only injuries coming when his horse, shot from under him, rolled, breaking several of his ribs.
My burgeoning interest took me down many of the usual avenues. Visits to the Regimental Museum, at the time ensconced in Belvoir Castle, and then abroad with Maggie, my wife, to see the battlefields and cemeteries of Mons, Ypres, the Somme and Verdun.
But then, sixteen months ago, fate took me down a different path.
A television programme featuring the Lost Gardens of Heligan briefly touched on their gardeners who died in the Great War. I live quite close to Heligan and sent a letter asking if any research had been carried out into the circumstances surrounding their deaths. By coincidence, Candy Smit, the garden’s Creative Director, was in the embryonic phase of writing a general Heligan history. My offer to build on existing research relating to the gardeners was accepted and the booklet Heligan History - Lost Gardens, Lost Gardeners has now been published.
The whole exercise culminated in a very moving tribute on the evening of 8 November 2008, when a hundred invited guests remembered both the 90th Anniversary of the Armistice and the ten gardeners whose history has been traced so far. Eight of those ten served King and Country, six did not return. The search for others goes on.
There is no sign of my obsession diminishing. Maggie is standing, looking over my shoulder as I type this account. It will not be long before there is a knowing smile, a pat on the head and a quiet reminder that dinner has been on the table for the last ten minutes!
Obsessions can be like that - can’t they?