REX Barnett, the Mayor of Swindon, is saying something to me over the phone which seems so extraordinary, so unlikely, so “surely he’s got it wrong” that I have to ask him to repeat it not twice but three times. This is what he is saying: “My dad fought in World War One.”
As Rex is talking I am trying to do my sums, mentally tying my admittedly limited mathematical abilities into fisherman’s knots. Your dad fought in a war which broke out almost a century ago, I am thinking. Surely, this cannot be. “You mean World War Two, Rex,” I blurt.
“No, he was at Ypres and everything,” comes the response. I can almost hear him chuckling down the line at my incredulity.
“That’s amazing – it hardly seems possible,” I say, or words to that effect. Then I strike a shiny piece of journalistic gold with a simple yet essential question.
“You haven’t by any chance got a photo of your father have you Rex… perhaps in his military uniform?”
“Oh yeah,” Rex responds. “We’ve got one of him marching down the road, leading the troops.” Shortly afterwards I am looking at a copy of this incredible image. Here is Rex’s father, Albert Henry Barnett at the head of a platoon of British Army soldiers at an unspecified period during the Great War of 1914-18.
They are marching in formation over a bridge, somewhere in France or Belgium presumably. They look wet, a little bedraggled. Some of them are glancing at the photographer, an official Army snapper no doubt. These are the faces of men, perhaps, who have already seen more than they had bargained for.
You can make out the sergeant’s stripes on the right arm of Albert’s greatcoat. Also, there is an obvious father/son resemblance. A teenage Rex, I surmise, would have been a dead ringer for his pop when he was fighting for King and country in the “war to end all wars.”
Looking again at this sepia-tinted photograph, I can’t help wondering how many of these lads – most of whom, like Albert Barnett, were probably not yet out of their teens – made it back to friends and loved ones in the green fields of Britain from the muddy, rat infested trenches of France.
Albert obviously did – but only just, as it turns out – or I wouldn’t be speaking to this engaging and charming man on the phone almost 100 years later.
The story of Albert Henry Barnett of Swindon, as related to me by his son four years ago, says a lot about what that unfortunate generation of men from both sides of the fence were forced to endure… the courage and fortitude they were impelled to summon in the face of enduring hardship and horror.
However, it is June 2010 and I am phoning 71 year-old Rex – who, like many Swindonians of a certain age, is a former railway worker – after he has been appointed as Swindon’s Mayor following many years, on and off, as a hard-working local councillor.
One of his first duties is to present medals to Swindon veterans during Armed Forces Week in Wharf Green. My job at the time involves writing supplements promoting events that are going on in the town centre and I figure a couple of quotes from the mayor were required to liven up the copy. A bit of an understatement, as it turns out.
So Rex, do you have any connection with the Armed Forces?
Like so many other young soldiers who fought in the killing fields of World War One, Albert went straight from school uniform into army uniform. He was 15 and lied about his age in order to enlist. His country needed him. Simple as that.
Albert became a member of the Machine Gun Corps and fought at Ypres (or ‘Wipers’ as our tongue-twisted squaddies pronounced it) the ancient Belgian market town whose name is now synonymous with some of the bloodiest trench warfare of all time.
Standing in the path of Germany’s planned sweep across Belgium into France, Ypres was the scene of three major battles between 1914 and 1917 (see panel). Having impressively attained the rank of sergeant over a relatively short period of time, it would appear that Albert fought in the final battle of Ypres on the fields of Flanders in the autumn of 1917 – one of the bloodiest in the history of mankind.
We know this because that is when mustard gas – an invidious chemical that induces burns, blisters and blindness and whose long term effects can result in cancer – was used for the first time by the Imperial German Army as a weapon of wide-scale decimation.
And that’s happened to Albert – he was mustard gassed.
Rex says: “My dad hardly ever mentioned the war. My brother and sister and I just heard bits and pieces over the years. He was part of a three-man team in the Machine Gun Corps. One held the gun – they were very heavy things – the other carried the ammunition and the third man fired it. Years later dad said that, sadly, one of his team died.
“My dad got gassed at Ypres. The Germans would wait until the wind blew in the right direction and then release it. He survived and was sent home – and that was the end of his war. I’m pretty sure that being gassed affected him in later life: he certainly had breathing problems.
“It makes me very proud when I think about him and what he did in the First World War.”
Recovering at least partially from the effects of mustard gas Albert returned to Swindon and worked for the Great Western Railways for the remainder of his working life.
Raising a family, he was 38 when Rex, the youngest of his three children, was born in 1938 – two decades after the end of the Great War.
Albert died at the age of 65 in 1965… from cancer. So perhaps he was a belated victim of World War One after all.
Rex, sadly, never made it to see the 100th anniversary of the beginning of this monumental conflict. He died aged 74 just over a year ago.
Relishing the prospect of presenting Veterans Badges to former Swindon members of the Armed Forces back in June, 2010, Rex says: “When I hand out the medals at Wharf Green I will obviously think of my dad.
“He was very proud of Swindon, very proud of England and very patriotic.”
- OCCUPYING a strategic position, Ypres in Belgium was in 1914 surrounded on three sides by the invading German Army who bombarded it for much of the war.
To counterattack, British, French and allied forces made costly advances into the German lines on the surrounding hills.
The First Battle of Ypres (October 19-November 22, 1914) saw the Allies capture the town from the Germans.
However, the Germans’ use of poison gas for the first time on April 22, 1915 marked the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres from April 22 to May 25.
Tear gas and chlorine were the chemicals of choice before the Germans introduced mustard gas – also called Yperite – for the first time during the Third Battle of Ypres (July 21-November 6, 1917).
Also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, the town was all but obliterated and fighting resulted in nearly half a million casualties on all sides with only a few miles of ground won by Allied forces.
Ypres was also one of the battle zones strung along the Western Front where unofficial ceasefires took place on Christmas Eve and Day, 1914.
Gifts and food were exchanged between opposing troops in no-man’s land who famously also played football against each other.
However, these symbolic moments of peace and humanity were snuffed out by military bigwigs on both sides.
Such fraternisation was considered bad form as it went wholly against the spirit of war.