Whatever, they are seen as 'our glorious dead', heroes revered and venerated at village memorials across the land. Indeed, I have identified thirteen members (so far) of my own family to have died in the conflict of 1914-18, and every one is a tragic tale of a life cut short.
But how about when it's not so clear-cut? This year I will tell the story of one of my distant cousins who died on the first dreadful day of the battle of the Somme, but who - when you know the full tale - you would find hard to fully revere.
His name was Thomas Sherriff, and he was born some time around 1885 to a family of Romany Gypsies, his parents being Hope (aka 'Gypsy Jack') and Trinity (aka Hetty, Genti, Trenetty or even Franette) Sherriff. He'd already served in the Sherwood Foresters alongside his father around the time of the Boer War. I don't yet know whether he saw service in that conflict, but I do know he was imprisoned for seven days for violently attacking a family rival in the marketplace at Wirksworth, in February 1900.
A far more serious offence occurred in January 1903 when Tom was arrested for his involvement in the killing of a policeman. PC William Price had gone to the Sherriff Gypsy camp to investigate the theft of three ferrets from a nearby farm. Things turned nasty and a fight broke out between PC Price and three of the Sherriff brothers, Tom, John and Joseph. Their father, Hope, and a fellow traveller, Arkless Holland (married to Tom's sister, Raini) were also implicated. During the fight, the constable was struck on the head with his own truncheon and the three brothers bolted. Price later died from his wounds and a murder hunt ensued.
After a few days on the run, and two more policemen injured while trying to arrest them, the Sherriffs were caught. Hope and Arkless, held earlier, were acquitted, but Tom, John and Joseph were found guilty of manslaughter and were given fifteen years penal servitude. The brothers never revealed who struck the actual devastating blow to PC Price, but the family story points most strongly at Tom. They were lucky - had the verdict been murder then they would have all hanged.
Joseph died in prison in about 1907. Tom and John can both be seen on the 1911 census as inmates of Portland Prison in Dorset. But, with the First World War looming, it seems they were released early, or perhaps volunteered, into the hands of the army, John into the Notts & Derby Regiment and Tom, at first into the Notts and Derby Regiment, and then the Lancashire Fusiliers. It was with this regiment he found himself on the front line of the Somme on 1st July 1916. At 7.20 am a huge mine was exploded under the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt and the Lancashires charged, only to come under severe German machine gunning and artillery. The regiment lost seven officers and 156 other ranks in the attack - including Tom Sherriff, a small portion of the 20,000 dead the British suffered on that first day alone.
For the past two years I have been invited by the Romany and Traveller Family History Society to join a delegation at the Cenotaph memorial in London, helping to represent Romanies who served. Sadly I have not been able to make it, and I do always think of the conflicting feelings that surround the sad story of Thomas Sherriff. Tom is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial in Picardy, and also on the village memorial at Newbold, Chesterfield. (Out of interest, Tom wasn't the only less-than-pristine family member to serve... another distant cousin, James Veevers, has a war record that brims with notes about drinking, housebreaking and disorderly conduct, all of which eventually landed him in prison for a while.)
Still, as well as Tom's fellow convict, John (also known as Uriah, wounded in 1917), other Romanies of my family served in the First War: Henry Holland, also with the Notts & Derby Regiment, was wounded on eight occasions in France, the final time, in Sep 1916, seeing him invalided to England before he died at home, in Aug 1918, from complications connected to his wounds; Charles Duffield (aka Hodgkins) was with the North Staffordshires and died at Ypres in July 1916; Perrin Dennett served with the Notts and Derby Regiment in 1918, though stayed in England.
Although my direct Romany-related line had ended their travelling ways in the 1870s or 80s, several descendants also fought in the war - my great-grandfather, Charles Hodgkins fought with the North Staffordshires in Gallipoli (see his story here); his brother Edward was also with the regiment (though a different battalion); their cousin Ernest Sherriff served in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and then the Royal Garrison Artillery; and his brother, Horace, joined the Durham Light Infantry (though did not fight abroad).
This has been my seventh Remembrance Sunday post, though the first for two years. You can see the previous entries here: 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 and 2004. My family war archive can be found here, and my online family war memorial here.