I would like to start with a passage written from the trenches
‘One finds it hard to realise [that] the Germans are only 75yds away until a machine gun or two opens fire. There was a lull in the fighting, and they lifted their heads above the parapets and called to each other in mockery. One said: ‘Come on over here,’ in the best German he could. He got a reply from a German trying an English accent, saying: ‘Not blooming likely!’ Then, after about half-an-hour, they started fighting again…if you raised your head, it would have been blown off. There are scores of men lying dead. These grenades are murderous things. Found watercress growing in a stream – went alright with bread and cheese’.
These straightforward, uncomplicated, words were not written by a celebrated poet or a prominent commentator; they are not part of any regimental diary or official war record nor are they the voice of authority or rank – indeed, far from it. These lines were written in the war diary of Sapper John French ─ a Redruth tin miner serving with the Royal Engineers in northern France who spent much of his time burrowing beneath enemy lines or franticly building structures to facilitate the advance of his comrades towards their adversaries.
Sapper French, like the men of this parish, were amongst the 9 million men from the British Empire who were recruited for the war effort. War, on the ground, was predominantly a working class occupation. His diary gives us a day-to-day portrayal of war, in the trenches and in the field. It tells us about emotions, comradeship, survival and sustenance in a poignant, often humorous commentary. Most war recruits from this parish were working class. From their work in agriculture or the service industry they travelled to various theatres of war safe in the knowledge that hostilities would be short-lived and that the foregone conclusion was a celebrated victory and a swift return to their families. The harsh reality was that they found themselves far from home, in some of the most inhospitable places on earth, living in squalid, disease-ridden, conditions, facing death on a daily basis and witnessing destruction on an unimaginable scale.
The men listed on our war memorial were amongst 3 million British casualties. Our purpose today is to remember these men; to acknowledge their sacrifice and to observe a silence that will evoke and embrace the spirit of continuity and memory. However, in order to remember we need to understand. My aim is to reveal their stories so that we can begin to understand. Yet, we can never fully appreciate − the hardships, the fear, the stress, the comradeship, the loss − all I can ever hope to achieve is to breathe some life back into the cold chiselled names on the plaque above the south door. I feel honoured to tell their stories but am well aware that I do so from the fortunate position that I have never witnessed, first-hand, conflict on any scale. Therefore their worlds are far from mine and their fears I shall never share ─ only gratitude and remembrance can I impart.
Here are their stories