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Strangers on a Train

My day job is working on the railways and one day in May 2018 will stick with me forever.

A lady of more mature years shall we say joined my train at Stockport one afternoon , and after chastising me for the train being the wrong way round I made sure she was settled in her First Class seat and promised to look in on her later in the journey.

An hour or so into the journey I returned & checked up on her and I noticed that she had some paperwork out & I spotted some WW2 medals! I asked her where she was going and she told me “I’m off to a garden party at Buckingham Palace as I’m a war widow” Well of course I wanted to know more, who wouldn’t! I mentioned that I was into history but mainly the Great War. She then introduced herself as Rita and began to tell me the story of her late husband Henry who had served in the Royal Engineers attached to the Parachute Regiment through North Africa and who had been injured & repatriated but in later years he succumbed to his injuries. Not being an expert on WW2 I thought I’d have to leave the conversation at that but then she said about her family never knowing what had happened to her Grandad in WW1.

Now I was in my absolute element, “Tell me all the details you have about him and the family” I said which she then scribbled on the back of a tatty old envelope. We exchanged contact details and I said I’d be in touch if I managed to find anything. If I’m honest I was wondering if I’d ever be able to find anything for her. We said our goodbyes on arrival in London & then the story began the day after..

It was my day off from work so I thought I’d take a quick look on that genealogy website that we all love & hate at the same time. Well straight away I saw something not quite right. Further investigation found that her Grandfather had most likely died well before the war but with 5 kids to feed her Grandmother had remarried to a chap called Thomas Bryan. This was the Grandfather who she’d been told about who had died in the war!

Thomas Bryan was the local Postman in the area of Manchester known as Ancoats. Often described as a poor, working class even slum area of Manchester surrounded by dozens of mills belching out obnoxious fumes life would have been tough for the family of 6 living in nearby Miles Platting. It’s possible that Thomas was a Territorial before the war and as war broke out Thomas joined up into the 2nd Bn Oxford & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry as Private 9213 heading over to France early on 29th November 1914.

On 15th May 1915 the battalion as part of 5th Brigade 2nd Division finds themselves south west of Richebourg-St-Vaast opposite the German Army with Ferme de Bois as their objective close to the cinder track and are the second wave after the 2nd Royal Inniskillings. Part of the Battle of Festubert the Ox & Bucks are to go over the top on the 18th May with the Garhwhal brigade of the Lahore Indian division on their left & 2nd South Staffs of 6th Brigade on their right. The war diary describes the unfavorable conditions “18th May 4.20pm The bombardment intensifies prior to the infantry attack- the enemy artillery responds. The infantry move out at 4.30pm but within minutes are cut down by machine gun”

At some point that day or the next Thomas is wounded & taken back to the 6th Field Ambulance ADS in a converted school in Béthune but is recorded as dying of his wounds on 19th May. He’s 45 years old and is laid to rest in Béthune Town Cemetery. A year after his death his wife & step daughter posted an In Memoriam in the local paper. From their words it’s evident that he was much loved & his death a great loss to his family

Family In Memoriam newspaper article (Manchester Evening News May 1916)

Of course I had all this to tell Rita and she couldn’t have took it better, of course she was surprised at it being Thomas but was over the moon at what I’d discovered. She always remembered as little girl her Grandmother taking her with her to a memorial on the end of a terrace house in Manchester and laying flowers at it. Now she knew why.

A few weeks later I was heading out to the Somme & so I called into Béthune Town on the way down on a gloriously hot summers day & found Thomas. I said a few words, assured him that he hadn’t been forgotten & I laid a cross at his graveside. I took a photo for Rita & sent it to her. She was that grateful she then contacted my employer telling them of all the events that had happened & singing my praises! But that wasn’t the end of it they then contacted the local press and both Rita & I were interviewed & appeared on Granada Reports on TV as well as in several local & national newspapers. For me I was totally out of my comfort zone with all this attention but I went along for Rita’s sake as to say she likes the limelight is an understatement Haha!

Grave of Thomas Bryan, Bethune( Authors Own Photo)

You’d think this was the end but Oh No! I then thought wouldn’t it be lovely to take Rita to see Thomas’s grave in Béthune so I approached my employer who agreed to fund the trip providing that Granada Reports came with us and filmed it for TV. Oh gosh not camera’s again I thought!! They then set about arranging it and a few months later myself, Rita, her Grandson & a TV presenter were heading on Eurostar to Lille for a rather hurried day trip to France.

But what happened that day was all worth it, seeing Rita say “Hello Grandad” and talking to him at his graveside got everyone of us bawling our eyes out and the ever wonderful CWGC even arranged for the head gardener (a Burnley Lad!) to be there to meet us and take Rita to Thomas. She was so grateful to him & his colleagues for looking after her Grandfather. As she laid her wreath & put her hand on her Grandfathers headstone she got us all crying again. It must have been a very dusty day is all I can say!

Rita at Thomas’s grave (Authors Own Photo)

When people ask me why I do what I do I simply point at that day and say “That’s why”

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