Remembrance of Times Past

Remembrance Weekend is the time when we commemorate those who served and died during modern wars and conflicts.

It’s an important way of honouring the men and women who fought for our freedom, democracy and liberty.

This year, I’m focusing on the stories of seven of my family members whose lives were changed forever by the First and Second World Wars. It’s a moving story full of drama, tragedy, sadness, hope and inspiration…

The Lusitania – James Wilkinson – Civilian Casualty

Photos – The Lusitania at sea (left) and graves of the dead at Queentown cemetery in Ireland (right).

My great uncle James Wilkinson was born in Liverpool in 1894 and grew up in a maritime and shipbuilding family. He worked as a ship’s steward and waiter, just like his father James had done before him.

James signed up as an Engineer’s Mess Steward on the Lusitania in 1915, looking after the catering for the ship’s crew. He was supposed to make the return journey from Liverpool to New York, but it proved to be an ill-fated trip.

On 7 May, 1915 the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine, 11 miles off the Head of Kinsale in Ireland.

The Lusitania sank with the loss of 1,100 passengers and crew. James didn’t stand a chance – he was working down in the bowels of the ship and may have been blown to smithereens where he was working. His body was never found.

Photograph: The Lusitania Memorial on Tower Hill in London and the Mercantile Marine list of dead crew.

Only a month earlier, he’d married his sweetheart, Marion Buck, at St Philips church in Liverpool and they’d moved into their first home at Ismay Road in Bootle. You could see the port and docks from the bottom of the street.

Recently I discovered the story of the tragedy. Nobody in my family had ever mentioned this event before – and it remains a mystery how can you forget a tragedy on the same scale as the sinking of the Titanic.

Perhaps it was simply too traumatic for the family to tell his story? Too poignant for words?

James was only 20 years old when he died. He was a civilian doing his job – and left just £50 to his widow in his will, a pittance.

His widow Marion eventually married again – to Robert Johnson, a painter and decorator in 1919. I’d like to think that she lived a happy and fulfilled life after losing her first love at such a young age.

Photographs – The Lusitania’s passenger deck; the torpedo strike; and illustration of the ship’s lifeboats.

Sadly, no photographs of James Wilkinson have survived, but I’d urge anyone to come forward if they have images of the crew of the Lusitania, as almost none have ever surfaced.

In recent years there has been controversy over whether the Lusitania was a valid military target for the Germans with rumours that the ship was secretly hiding munitions in its hold.

The tragedy is that the British government were eventually forced to admit that this was true which makes the death of innocent civilians and crew even more poignant.

Where to Visit: There is a memorial to those who perished on the Lusitania at Tower Hill in London. There are also several commemoration sites at Cobh in Ireland including the Queenstown Cemetery.

The Killing Fields – Albert Latham

Albert Latham is another family member who lost his life in World War One, serving in France at the height of the conflict. He’s my second cousin ‘once removed’ and, although I know little about him, his story is one of the most moving.

Albert joined the King’s Liverpool Regiment who were called into action in one of the bloodiest fields of war in northern France.

His regiment served at Armentieres , close to the French border with Belgium. It was known as a field ambulance centre – and a hotbed of ferocious fighting which never let up for four years during WW1.

Photos – Battle of Armentieres c/o Ordnance Survey; British soldiers c/o Imperial War Museum, and aerial image of the trenches.

La Chapelle-d’Armentieres village was in British hands from October 1914 until the fall of Armentieres in April 1918. This was trench warfare at its most brutal with few gains and major pain inflicted on both sides.

The loss of life was horrifying, partly because the trench warfare was very close to the front line and the fighting was sustained.

Life in the trenches was grim with the soldiers becoming sitting targets as the slow war of attrition carried on almost continuously throughout World War One.

Albert started his service as a private but was promoted to was a Lance Corporal in the 7th battalion of the King’s Regiment. The battalion was mobilised for war and landed at Havre in 1915, before transferring to Vendin-lez-Bethune.

During 1917 they were engaged in various actions on the Western front including the Battle of Pilkem Ridge, the “Third Battles of the Ypres”, and Cambrai Operations.

Albert was injured during these military manoeuvres and tragically died of his wounds in 1917.

He was just 20 years old, and is buried in Estairs Cemetery in France. Albert was one of a whole generation of men who never returned home and who is buried in a faraway field in France.

Where to Visit: There are several World War One cemeteries and memorials in northern France. One of the best places to witness the conditions in the trenches is the ‘remodelled’ tunnels at Vimy Ridge (pictured above).

Burma’s Brave “Tankies” – Arthur Wilkinson

My uncle Arthur Wilkinson grew up in Liverpool and lived close to the seafront in Crosby. He was a keen sportsman and enjoyed the great outdoors, athletics and football.

He was one of the first local men to volunteer for the war effort, at just 18 years old. He had no experience of life or war, but was determined to serve his country and defeat Fascism and Nazism.

Arthur was a Trooper with the Royal Tank Regiment. They were known as “The Tankies” and became embedded in the thick of the action in one of the hardest fought battles of World War Two.

Photos: British tank action in Burma during World War Two c/o Imperial War Museum.

Arthur saw action in the furthest flung parts of the world. When the war broke out in 1939, his battalion was based in Egypt with the Heavy Armoured Brigade (Egypt), part of the Armoured Division.

In early 1942, he was reported as “missing” but survived this close shave, but Arthur was not to so lucky on his expedition to Burma later that year.

Burma was a tough challenge for the British army. In 1942 they ended up retreating after suffering repeated failures against the Japanese who outnumbered them. The Japanese were also better trained and equipped for jungle warfare.

By May 1942 the British corps was thrown out of Burma, having lost nearly all its tanks and motor vehicles. They’d also suffered 13,463 casualties. Tragically, my uncle Arthur was amongst the dead.

For a considerable time, he was thought to be “missing” before finally being listed as “killed in action”. It was an agonising wait for his family back home in Liverpool who never discovered the full story of what happened.

Recently I found Commonwealth War Grave records which revealed that Arthur died on 7 May 1942 whilst serving with the Royal Tank Regiment. He was just 21 years of age.

Arthur Wilkinson is honoured at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in Rangoon. There are 1,381 Commonwealth servicemen of the Second World War buried or commemorated at this cemetery.

Where to Visit: I’ve wanted to visit Rangoon for a long time, but my trip has been put on hold due to ongoing political unrest in the country. The Rangoon cemetery in Myanmar is currently closed.

Fred and Arthur Wilkinson WW@

Rescue Mission – Dunkirk – Frederick Wilkinson

Photographs – Dunkirk beaches c/o Imperial War Museum – and Frederick Wilkinson as a child (far right)

My uncle Frederick Wilkinson grew up in Liverpool and was the brother of Arthur who died in Burma
(see above). Both were talented footballers who might have played professionally, if they’d survived the war.

Frederick had a trial with Everton FC as a teenager and impressed the team’s scouts to win a call back. But World War Two put an end to his dreams of becoming a top flight footballer.

He volunteered for service but he was too young to meet the official recruitment age. However, he managed to join the merchant navy in a support capacity.

Frederick served on the SS Killarney, a merchant navy ship which was one of a group of ships requisitioned by the Admiralty to augment the ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

In 1939 she was used as a transport ship, notably serving at Dunkirk to rescue British troops from the beaches. It was a difficult mission as the Killarney was attacked from the air by German planes and gunners on the land.

Photographs – SS Killarney at sea – and an eye witness account of its rescue mission at Dunkirk in 1940.

Frederick was badly injured during the rescue mission but managed to get back home on the ship.

Tragically, he died a few weeks later of his injuries. Official records show that the cause of death was “concussion and exposure”. 

Frederick Wilkinson is buried at Walton Cemetery in Liverpool not far from his home in Crosby. He was just 22 years old and left no girlfriend or wife to grieve.

“SS Killarney was off Dunkirk harbour at 05:00 on 29 May 1940 when the ship directly next to her, the SS Mona Queen struck a magnetic mine and sank in just two minutes. She entered the Harbour and picked up 900 troops from the east mole.  The Germans fired a total of 90 shells at her over a period of 45 mins. One shell hit home, landing on the aft boat deck.

There were 8 killed including one crew member and three others.  Fifteen minutes later she was spotted by a German bomber but before it could drop its bombs it was itself attacked and shot down by a Spitfire. The ship was not seriously damaged and three RAF Bombers escorted the ship during its journey home.”

“Epic of Dunkirk” by E. Kebel Chatterton

Photo – Survivors of the stricken SS Mona Queen are saved by British ships c/o Imperial War Museum.

His parents never recovered from the trauma of losing their two young sons during World War Two. There is only one torn photograph of Frederick as a teenager to remember him by (see above).

Where to Visit: Frederick and his brother Arthur are commemorated on Sefton War Memorial in Liverpool, but their names and others missing from the memorial were only added in the 1990s following lobbying by their families.

Hero of the Somme – George Breithaupt

George Thomas Breithaupt was born in Liverpool to a family with much earlier German roots.

His grandfather Theodore Breithaupt originally hailed from Lower Saxony in Germany but migrated to Liverpool in the mid 1850s.

George served as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War. This was a specialist medical team who did not fight or bear arms.

He was a stretcher bearer at the Battle of the Somme, and would have witnessed horrific injuries when undertaking his duties. George was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery in the field, rescuing the injured and retrieving the dying.

Photographs – Royal Army Medical Corps tending the injured at the Somme c/o Imperial War Museum

After returning home, he married a Liverpool lass called Lydia Tibble in 1922 and went on to raise a family. By the start of World War Two in 1939, he was working as a plasterer’s assistant and leading a normal family life.

Family photographs show him as a jolly chap, remarkable after what he’s witnessed during the ‘Great War’. Perhaps it made him value life to the full – and enjoy every moment?

He was one of the lucky ones to survive the Battle of the Somme. British troops sustained 420,000 casualties including 125,000 deaths in one of the most devastating battles of the First World War.

Video: Tour of the Somme

Where to Visit: The Somme Remembrance Trail is a good way of seeing several of the major World War One sites. The Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries relating to the Somme are well worth the trip.

The Musee Somme in Albert, France takes a detailed look at soldiers’ lives in the trenches in displays and also boats a 230 metre-long underground that was used as an air-raid shelter during World War Two. The museum at Péronne in France has a variety of war displays and is set in a tranquil location at the heart of the Cambrai battlefields.

GI Bride – Olive Breithaupt

A women’s role in the Second World War was either to support the war effort in factories, the fields (‘Land Girls’) or in military service. Whilst some worked in potentially lethal munitions factories or on transport, others stayed at home to ‘hold the fort’ and look after their families.

Women did see more active service in World War Two although still in a supporting role like my next relative – Olive Breithaupt, another Liverpudlian.

Photographs – Olive Breithaupt’s wedding day with father George and American husband, Horace Leverton
c/o Steve Leverton.

George Breithaupt’s daughter Olive joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service in the Second World War.

When she was on a train back to Liverpool, she met PFC Horace Leverton, as American serviceman who had only been in England for a month.

The story is that he flicked ash from his cigarette onto her skirt to attract her attention. It was really an excuse to chat her up – and during the duration of the journey, they hit it off. Horace always denied the story but Olive knew his real motives!

She invited him back to her Mum’s house – and the rest is history. She was a true “war bride”, marrying her sweetheart before the war ended in January 20, 1945.

Olive emigrated to Texas, USA with her American husband just after the end of the Second World War.

Photographs – George Thomas Breithaupt and family; Daughter Olive in the WRENs; Olive Breithaupt and husband Horace Leverton at VE Day celebrations in Liverpool. Images c/o Steve Leverton.

Survivor of Two World Wars – Arnold White

My grandfather Arnold White lived in Liverpool and was married to Millicent Broomfield with whom he had three children.

He was too young to enrol for service in World War One and too old to be called up during World War Two. But he lied about his age, volunteered his services, and fought in both wars.

Arnold spent the First World War in the navy on board a submarine, a ‘sitting target’ if you were spotted by a German U-boat. He later recalled how it was a terrifying, claustrophobic experience.

During World War Two, he joined the army and travelled across the world, clocking up service in North Africa and Egypt as well as Europe.

My grandfather was a bit of an adventurer and enjoyed the travel to foreign places he’d only read about in books. He was one of the lucky men who served in two world wars without sustaining a major injury or fatality.

Arnold’s most vivid stories were of Dunkirk where he was sent to help the rescue mission when British troops were stranded on the beach.

He remembered being on one of the last boats to escape from the beach as German gunfire rained down from the skies. It was a terrifying experience and he was lucky to escape with his life.

Photographs – Arnold White as a young man; and the British army in North Africa c/o Imperial War Museum.

My grandmother Millicent endured a lonely war, bringing up three young children in Liverpool and living in the city worst hit by bombing outside of London. She also had two British soldiers billeted in her house, a strange experience.

‘Millie’ described my grandfather as being “like a stranger” when he came home because he’d been away fighting for so long. She had hardly seen him in six years.

There was an Anderson shelter at the top of her street where several neighbours were killed when it sustained a direct strike. My Nan and Mum remember hiding in the house’s stair cupboard when the air raid signal boomed out.

On the military front in Egypt, her husband Arnold was serving in the Royal Army Service Corps as a Colonel.  He drove trucks carrying ammo, explosives, petrol and rations.

It was dangerous work due to explosive  loads, potential ambushes, accidents and night driving.

After Arnold returned at the end of the war, he spent the rest of his life as a manual worker in Liverpool – I remember being taken his workplace as a child. It was like a fiery furnace, hell on earth.

He never forgot his wartime memories – and talked constantly about the Second World War, proudly showing off his medals.

Where to Visit: Gravelines and Dunkirk’s beaches in northern France. For those who can’t get abroad, the Imperial War Museum in London and Salford have excellent collections of World War Two archives and artefacts.

We Will Remember Them…

Photographs – The horrors of war c/o Imperial War Museum.

My family’s seven stories are poignant, sometimes sad, but are also full of hope and inspiration.

Each of the stories illustrates how my relatives had very different experiences of war – and they will resonate with thousands of other families who had grandfathers, uncles, aunts and grown-up children who served in wars.

Their bravery and resilience is something we should be proud of… as long as we can create a world where their values of freedom of speech and community are upheld.

We will never forget them because they can be “heroes for more than one day”… and their memories will live forever.

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