Sunday, 8 November 2015


James Macefield was a quarryman, and his sons followed him to the quarry, all leaving school at the earliest opportunity to join their Dad. Three of his sons left the quarry to join the army. Arthur served and returned, but didn't speak of what he saw. James also said little of his experience, limiting his sharing to a teasing of the children of the family, inviting them to bang a stick against his leg and enjoying their surprise when they discovered it was wooden. He never told them how he lost his own leg, though. 'I lost it in the war', was as much as he said. Frank, the youngest, was only eleven when war broke out. He didn't serve then, and when another terrible war followed he was in a reserved occupation, and added to his support for his community by becoming a firewatcher, staying up night after night to watch over his city. Frank had three children. The eldest two didn't get on too well, and lost touch. Their children, who had played as little ones, didn't have a choice in this family division, and resigned themselves to having lost contact with their more distant family members for good. They moved on, had children of their own, and got on with life - sad that there were family members who seemed not to want contact, but that's families for you.

James had one other son. Benjamin, the third son, also worked in the quarry and served in the same regiment as his eldest brother. James had ensured his sons could read and write, but they were a working class family, so not people to write letters or diaries. And that means that there is very little record of Benjamin's life. No one now knows what his favourite dinner was, or whether he enjoyed sport. No one knows whether he was kind, or a bully; whether he was quiet or the life and soul of the party; whether he was a friend to many or to few. What we do know is that Benjamin died in March 1917, at the age of 21.

21. So very young. He may have had a sweetheart to miss him, but he was too young to have left a wife or children, and perhaps that is a good thing. War hurts too many of the people who are left behind. At least there was no one dependent on Benjamin. His father, brothers and sisters will have missed him, and perhaps his friends did. The local community grandees who sponsored war memorials did not consider his death of note. Ben did not die 'gloriously' on a  battlefield, but in a hospital in England. So he was placed in an unmarked grave and no memorial to him was left anywhere.

Almost a century later, today's leaders see the lost of war in a different way. They recognise that people like Ben would have survived the war if they had not been called up. That their death is just as important and worth valuing as any death on the battlefield. Ben died in the service of his country just as much as anyone. And so the Commonwealth War Graves Commission set out to right an old wrong and commissioned historians to seek out the stories of those not remembered. A list was made and can still be added to, and a new large memorial opened this week at Brookwood Military Cemetery, to finally ensure that the forgotten deaths become remembered ones. Although all too little of Benjamin Macefield's story is known, a historian found what there is, and ensured that his name was added to the list.

And so one sunny morning this week, as the new memorial was dedicated and Macefield B's name admired amongst the 267 formerly forgotten, James Macefield's grandson and his great grandson were amongst those present. The grandson is uncle to the great grandson, but didn't recognise his nephew because those family separations had meant it was thirty years since the two had last met. The nephew did not recognise the uncle either, but when the connection was discovered he was delighted. After so many years, a family came back together. Contact details could be shared, stories told, lives re-connected.

Benjamin, and millions like him in the Great War, and in wars before and since, died not for the sake of war, but for the sake of peace. Men like Arthur and James served and lived in the hope of the same peace. It was to defend their loved ones and keep them safe. For those of us who remember them, our remembering is not just about who the people were. That matters, of course it matters, but if who the people were was all it is about then we would stop remembering when living memory ended. We remember too - remember the men like Ben of whom we know so little -  because they stand for something more. They are a prompt, a symbol for us, of the vital importance of working for peace.

Peace isn't easy. It requires listening and it needs effort. It involves sacrificial giving and a choice to put up with people even when they don't agree or do things the way you want them to. The uncle and nephew who restored a family relationship were brought together by their desire to remember, and perhaps in remembering to apply the sort of values that are worth fighting for. Forgiveness, for example, and love. Even better, they're worth not fighting for, but living out. As Benjamin's last legacy, that restored - re-membered - family is a great gift.

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