The Doiran Memorial stands roughly in the centre of the line occupied for two years by the Allies in Macedonia, but close to the western end, which was held by Commonwealth forces. It marks the scene of the fierce fighting of 1917-1918, which caused the majority of the Commonwealth battle casualties. From October 1915 to the end of November 1918, the British Salonika Force suffered some 2,800 deaths in action, 1,400 died later from their wounds and 4,200 from sickness. The campaign afforded few successes for the Allies, and none of any importance until the last two months. The action of the Commonwealth force was hampered throughout by widespread and unavoidable sickness and by continual diplomatic and personal differences with neutrals or Allies. On one front there was a wide malarial river valley and on the other, difficult mountain ranges, and many of the roads and railways it required had to be specially constructed.
The Doiran Memorial, in the north of Greece, is where my sister finally tracked our great-uncle Charles Marsh to. We do not know whether he died in action or, given the numbers listed, more likely of disease.
My mother never knew her Uncle Charlie. He died or was killed three years before she was born in 1921. Though she never met him, his death and the loss to her own mother loomed so large in her childhood that we, the next generation, were never allowed to forget. His photo – one of a very serious, buttoned-up looking young man in uniform which was taken, I imagine, just before he embarked, passed to mum on my grandmother’s death. From then on Uncle Charlie sat on her dining room dresser for her to look at as she, too, grew old and frail, and severe dementia set in. For a long time, as other members of her family gradually got lost in the clouds of her mind, one that she never knew – her Uncle Charlie – remained.
It wasn’t until last week when I was checking with my sister about what exactly we knew of where and how Uncle Charlie died that I found I, too, had an uncle I never knew who was killed in the Somme in one of the terrible battles that my grandfather had survived, though he was never to ‘get over’ it. My father’s cousin, I learnt, is listed on the Thiepval Monument near Albert in the Somme. My sister went there when she was 14, and took flowers. Now I have two trips in honour of my family’s war dead to add to my bucket list.
This Armistice centenary has made me think – about the role of families in remembering and ‘holding’ on to our collective inheritance. It’s also made me reflect on what the destruction of families and collapse of marriage, in particular, means for our common inheritance. Is it doomed by the transitory nature of people’s relationships? How does a lack of knowledge of our roots affect the national psyche?
The truth about conservatism that the First World War taught us, if nothing else, is how easily good things can be destroyed, how hard they are to create from nothing.
We would like to invite you add your own families’ recollections about the First World War in the comments stream below.
We plan to make a selection to publish in an Armistice Day Tribute on November 11.