Searching for Private Martin

After decades of speculative stories, I finally found documentary evidence. The International Committee of the Red Cross have prisoner of war records from the First World War online, half a million files of information.

At last, I had found Uncle Jack, but the records did not match the oral tradition that had come down through the family.

The story goes that the Great War was at its height when Uncle Jack joined the army and was sent to the Western Front.  The official age for enlistment was eighteen, but there were many younger than Jack in the trenches.   Jack was captured by the Germans, but was said to have appeared on no prisoner of war lists so was assumed to be dead.

The war ended in November 1918 and the family tradition said there was neither sign nor record of him.

Jack returned home in 1919.  It was said that he had we walked back through the chaos of post-war Europe from the coalmines in Poland where he and many others had been working as forced labour.   Leaving the mines, he had no identity papers and tied rags around his bare feet. It was said that he had walked a hundred miles before finding someone who could assist him in his journey homewards.

There was a family story that he was carried through the streets of Langport, shoulder high, when he came home.  It had seemed unlikely, but who knows?  Maybe it was one of the few happy stories from those bleak times.  The Great War had been followed by the Spanish Flu, which had claimed more victims than the fighting, taking its heaviest toll amongst the younger and fitter whose ranks had already been reduced by the conflict.

Then on Saturday, I discovered Jack’s prisoner of war records. He had been captured on 27th May 1918. The 1/5th  battalion of the Durham Light Infantry to which Jack belonged had suffered heavy casualties. The German onslaught of the spring of 1918 had reduced the battalion number to 103 officers and men, Jack would have been among the hundreds who didn’t answer the roll call.

Jack is recorded as being in a camp in Hesse in September 1918. On 18th November 1918, he is shown as being among men in a transit camp in Holland, awaiting repatriation to England.

After that reference, the trail goes cold. A year later, the Langport and Somerton Herald reported that Private Jack Martin of Huish Episcopi woulds be demobilised on 8th November.

The family tradition said he had disappeared for a year, Presumably, the absence was not during the Great War, but in the year that followed.

Soldiers who had been prisoners of war were generally granted two months leave and given the option of considering themselves to be demobilised if they did not wish to return to duty. Jack must have chosen to continue military service, the mystery now is why no-one knew where he was and why in the years that followed he never told anyone.

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Meeting Sergeant Luxton

Albert Luxton died five years before I was born. When I was young, the 74 years of his life seemed to represent reasonable longevity, now he seems a man whose life was too short. He is a man I should have liked to have known.

Each Christmas and Easter, I go to Aller churchyard to pay my respects to him and to my my great grandmother. It is a good place to await the resurrection of the last day, an ancient site, Guthrun, the Danish king was baptised here after losing the battle of Ethandun to Alfred in 878.

A professional soldier, the Roll of Honour website gives brief details of my great grandfather, but the details give a few clues of the stories behind the words:

Served and returned. Born 1881, in Aller, Langport, Somerset. Attested 29 July 1899 at Taunton, aged 18 years 8 months, served as Private 3313, 15th Hussars. Labourer before enlisting. Unmarried. Height 5 feet 5 inches, weight 116lbs, chest 34 inches, fresh complexion, grey eyes, brown hair; religious denomination Church of England. Re-enlisted 23 August 1911 in Section “D”, 19th Hussars. Son of Alfred and Betsy Luxton, of Mayfield Cottage, Aller, Langport, Somerset. Married Emily Bond Woods at the parish church Aller, Langport, 19 October 1910; they had 3 children

Enlisting in the 15th Hussars, a cavalry regiment, in July 1899 would have meant an immediate overseas posting. The British Cavalry regiments website says:

In 1882, after an absence abroad of twelve years, the Regiment were stationed in Aldershot. They subsequently marched to the Midlands (1885), and then to Scotland. (Amongst other duties, the Regiment provided a Royal Escort for Queen Victoria in Glasgow in 1888). And in 1889 the Regiment moved to Ireland, where they were to enjoy seven years of peace. The Regiment returned to Southern England in 1896 and took part in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations (1897).

In 1899 the Regiment embarked for India once more. They were stationed at Lucknow, and then Meerut, and remained in India for the next ten years.

Albert’s first spell of military service would appear to have been spent in India, with a regiment that had not seen military action for decades. Perhaps they would have regarded themselves as fortunate to have been posted to India and not to South Africa, to face the Boers in a bitter conflict.

His absence from England is perhaps an explanation as to why he did not marry until he was twenty-nine. When he was married in 1910, his occupation on the marriage certificate was given as ‘soldier,’ and he was still serving with the 15th Hussars at the time of the census in April 1911, when he and Emily were living at Aldershot.

Did he leave the army intending to live a civilian life in Somerset? The break in military service cannot have lasted more than a matter of weeks. He re-enlisted, to serve with the 19th Hussars, and served through the duration of the First World War, the regiment participating in numerous on the Western Front actions in Flanders and on the Somme, both as cavalry and as foot soldiers.

The family story of what happened after the end of the First World War was unclear. Family history says that he went to Ireland to serve with the British forces, that he had guarded prisoners.  There were fears that he might have served with the Black and Tans, there were no records of the 19th Hussars being posted to Ireland, in fact, they were disbanded in June 1921.

There was a sense of delight when I discovered that he had become nothing more sinister than a military policeman, that he had become Sergeant Luxton of the Military Provost Staff Corps.

For the first time today, I saw a photograph of him in his military police uniform. Taken in 1919, it seems more a picture of a man from the Edwardian golden age than of someone who had been through the horrors of the Great War.

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Aleister Crowley?

You don’t expect the name of the old charlatan to crop up in an episode of Van der Valk. Twenty-First Century crime series don’t generally engage with the sort of pre-modern occult ideas propagated by a man dead more than seventy-five years.

Oddly. it was in visiting the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise last month that brought an insight into the possible origins of Crowley’s ideas and writings.

Sitting in the auberge where Vincent van Gogh stayed during the final ten weeks of his life, a friend explained to me a potential cause of Vincent’s progressive psychological decline – absinthe. It seems that the consumption of glasses of an alcohol of significant strength and toxicity is unlikely to have facilitated a positive state of emotional health.

‘Artemisia absinthium,’ said my friend, ‘wormwood’.

My first encounters with wormwood were in a hymn we sang on Ascension Day at primary school:

Sinners, whose love can ne’er forget
The wormwood and the gall,
Go, spread your trophies at His feet.
And crown Him, crown Him, crown Him,
Crown Him Lord of all!

In adult life, wormwood was encountered in the verses of Scripture. It is an expression of a sense of bitterness in the book of Lamentations. In the Revelation to Saint John, wormwood is a star that falls from the heavens and poisons the water. In spiritual reading, Wormwood was the name of the apprentice devil in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

At no time had it ever occurred to me that wormwood might also be the name of a content of an alcoholic drink that found favour with numerous major artists and writers. A web search for absinthe revealed that it seems to have been drunk by Crowley and Vincent and have had a detrimental effect on numerous artists.

As well as Aleister Crowley and Vincent van Gogh, absinthe drinkers included: Édouard Manet who died with gangrene caused by rheumatism and syphilis; Paul Verlaine, who died from drug and alcohol abuse; Amedeo Modigliani, who  used absinthe and hashish and died aged 35; and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who died from alcoholism at the age of 36.

Perhaps the drinking of absinthe was more an aspect of the behaviour of certain characters of genius rather than the cause of that behaviour.

When compared with the short lives of the artists who drank absinthe, the seventy-two years of the life of Aleister Crowley seems to represent considerable longevity. Long life, however, did not seem to have diminished the esotericism of his ideas.


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Criminal yobs

The long summer holiday brings a season of crime.  Even while in France two weeks ago, I found a German channel carrying episodes from the Kenneth Branagh incarnation of Wallander. (It was odd watching an English language programme with foreign subtitles).

ITV 3 is the channel for the summer viewing – a detective series every evening at eight o’clock. Of course, they are all repeats and some of which I might be watching for the second, third, or even fourth time.

Last night it was Midsomer Murders, the episode about a murdered nun (a nun in the proper sense of that word, someone living a life in an enclosed order, not a religious sister living in the community). It was a low death toll for Inspector Barnaby, just two murders, the nun and the parish priest (a character whose accent wandered as much as the plot).

The convent chapel was unmistakeably a Church of England church, with a stained glass east window.

The discovery of a courting couple in the grounds by one of the nuns caused severe embarrassment to the local yob left without his trousers. The yob and his friends returned that night and threw beer bottles through the east window of the chapel.

‘It was a Burne-Jones.’ commented Detective Sergeant Jones.

‘No, it wasn’t.’ I thought, ‘it was nothing like a Burne-Jones’.

Never having the prospect of ever affording a work by Burne-Jones, I was delighted last year to be given a platinotype by Frederick Hollyer of Burne-Jones Six Days of Creation. It hangs above the fireplace in my flat, a piece to contemplate with delight.

Burne-Jones was a member of the pre-Raphaelite group of artists, artists whose work is very distinctive. The images in a Burne Jones stained glass window are considerably more striking than the anaemic figures in the Midsomer convent chapel window.

Burne-Jones’ work was familiar long before I ever discovered his name.  Visiting an exhibition of Burne-Jones paintings in Birmingham in 2009, there was a sense of having encountered him before.

In the Lady Chapel of the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Huish Episcopi, beneath the soil of which churchyard lay generations of my forebears, there is a stained glass depiction of the Nativity by Edward Burne-Jones.

The world of Burne-Jones seems a place of beauty far removed from the sort of world where yobs would smash a stained glass church window for the sake of doing so – and it’s not just in television detective series that such things happen.

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Hippy time

My supervisor had been working in Poland and Latvia for the past two weeks. ‘There were surprises’, he said, ‘things I had not expected. In post-Soviet countries, it was surprising to find hippies’.

I recalled seeing a documentary about the old German Democratic Republic in the 1980s. Among those featured were people whose lifestyle and attitudes reflected the counter-culture of the 1960s, perhaps individual non-conformity was an act of opposition to the grimness of Communism.

Hippies seem to have been around almost all of my life.

The hippies who gathered in this part of Somerset in June each year were like exotic beasts to the people of  our conservative, traditional county.  They had ways of life which seemed strange to our old-fashioned farming community.  They drove battered old vans. They had long hair and brightly coloured clothes. Some grew and smoked cannabis, a lot of the time without much attention from the police. They were altogether different from the people we knew.

Some had come to Glastonbury because they believed that Glastonbury Tor, the hill outside of the town, was the centre of the Earth.

Given the fact that I could see Glastonbury Tor from my bedroom window, I found it hard to believe it was the centre of anything. Some believed there were ‘ley lines’, lines of some sort of power or force; these lines went around the world and supposedly met at Glastonbury.

Some of the hippies believed odd things. Some believed there was power in crystals and pyramids. Some believed the future could be foretold; some believed you could tell a person’s future by reading Tarot cards; some believed in astrology, that our lives were controlled by the stars.

The people who gathered around Glastonbury included some who believed in what my mother called ‘black magic’; trying to call up the spirits of the dead; trying to use the powers of darkness. They seemed to have believed strongly in the black and sinister powers.

To be fair, though, most of them were innocent and harmless. They said they believed in love and peace and seemed to think they could find it in our little corner of the country.

For a while, there was a hippy encampment at Street Hill, six miles from our village.  Family groups lived in tepees.  The women seemed to be responsible for most of the work while the men talked.  Where they found money for food and petrol and the stuff of everyday life was never clear.  Maybe they claimed National Assistance payments (or whatever universal credit was called at the time). Maybe they came from wealthy families; what they did not do was to work.

With the solstice tomorrow, the hippies will gather. Most now are aged, wrinkled and grey. They seem now as much an artefact of the past as fur hats with red stars.

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