Picture: Crown Copyright/Public Domain
On this 100th anniversary of the worst day in British military history, I want to pay tribute to those relatives of mine who fought in both the world wars. There is nothing unusual about them; they were typical of hundreds of thousands of British servicemen who risked, and often gave, their lives to secure future peace in Europe and the wider world.
Seven members of my immediate family were involved, three of whom lost their lives (†).
Archie Stainforth, MC (Grandfather). Western Front, four major battles, including The Somme and Messines. Wounded twice.
Hedley Glover, MC (Great Uncle). Western Front, many battles, including The Somme. Wounded three times.
Richard Stainforth (Great Great Uncle). † 19 October 1914, Ypres
Harold Spink (Maternal Grandfather). One of the few survivors of the terrible 147-day siege of Kut-el-Amara in Mesopotamia (Dec 1915 – Apr 1916), and a death-march into Turkey.
Theodore Newbery (Maternal Great Uncle). † 14 July 1916, The Somme
Peter Stainforth (Father) Paratrooper at battles in Tunisia, Sicily, Italy and Arnhem (at which he was seriously wounded and taken prisoner). At the age of 96, he is a staunch Remainer. [Update: Peter Stainforth died peacefully on 13th December, 2017.]
George Stainforth, AFC (Great Uncle, famous pilot. Broke World Speed Record 1931). In WWII, Wing Commander, 89 Squadron. † 27 September 1942, Egypt
I should also mention my father’s best friend at school (a cousin on his mother’s side of the family), Gordon Mathew – after whom I was named – who was killed in a Fleet Air Arm attack on the Tirpitz in April 1944. Also, two other cousins on my paternal grandmother’s (Glover) side of the family, Harry Glover and Patrick Glover, who were both killed in the RAF Bomber Command in the same year.
These ten men, six of whom gave their lives, would, I’m sure, have agreed with the RAF veteran Franklin Medhurst, aged 96, who recently wrote in a letter to the Guardian that the battles they had fought had ‘given Europe 70 years of peace and security in a widely unstable world.’
He warned that if we were to leave Europe ‘the lives of my comrades – Irish, Scots, Welsh and English – were lost in vain. They will be rattling their bones, wherever in the world they fell, at the loss of the beliefs for which they fought…. Britain out means a return to the early-20th-century chaos of warring states against each other.’
And another RAF veteran, David Meylan, said: ‘We sacrificed many, many men in both world wars and this was to establish a peaceful and a prosperous union. We can’t sacrifice that now.’
Unfortunately, in the EU referendum of June 23, just over half the electorate* failed to heed these warnings, and we now find ourselves cast adrift in a new uncertain world.
Many of the Brexiters seem to dislike any of us Remainers (48% of those who voted) expressing any regrets, and snap back, ‘Get over it!’ Someone even said to me, ‘Get over yourself.’ I presume what they mean is, ‘Get over your emotional attachment to an old “Great Britain” as part of a European Union and get used to the new, exciting idea of England, Scotland and Wales each as separate countries detached politically from Europe and the rest of the world.’
On this sad centenary of the start of the Battle The Somme, which is a lot sadder than it should have been, what I fear is the emergence of a new ‘Little Britain’ full of hatred, division, racism, and economic uncertainty. And political insecurity within the continent of Europe in which we are still situated. Whether we like it or not, or whether we hate our old friends and neighbours or not.
On this morning of all mornings, I think it is a monumental shame.
Gordon Newbery Stainforth
0730 July 1, 2016
Added June 2018:
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled …
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Strange Meeting, Wilfred Owen
* Actually, only 37.4% of the electorate voted to Leave; 28% were too apathetic to vote.
I particularly recommend the following books on the Battle of the Somme:
Martin Middlebrow, The First Day of the Somme: 1 July 1916. Allen Lane, 1971.
Malcolm Brown, The Imperial War Museum Book of the Somme. Sidgwick & Jackson, 1996.