Last year, I begged this ‘My Tommy’s War’ slot to write about my mother’s family’s war, because of a letter in my mother’s family papers which was written exactly 100 years ago, June 1914. The letter was sent from my great-grandfather, Vincent, to my grandfather, Gus. It says that Vincent and my great-grandmother Caroline won’t be coming to visit Gus in July 1914 as planned, as they are going to a sanatorium for their health. They’ll come in September instead.
So far, so not-too-sinister (at least if you know that this branch of my family obsessively took health cures but mostly lived to a ripe old age!). But if I tell you that my family’s surname was Mayer, that Gus was short for Gustavus, and that Vincent was writing from Freiburg im Breisgau to his son in London, you can possibly start to see why this letter is symbolic of what the First World War meant to my family.
In fact, Vincent’s decision to postpone his trip to England by a few weeks meant that father and son never met again. Vincent died in November 1918, still in Germany, aged 87. In December 1918, the German branch managed to get a letter out via Switzerland, which gave Gus news about what had happened to his family during the war, including his father’s death.
When remembering the First World War, it’s easy to think in terms of families being on one side or the other, according to their nationality. In practice, as my family’s experience shows, it is possible to find families who were physically ‘on both sides’, divided and unable to communicate during the war. Luckily, all my family members were too elderly (in some cases too female) to be required to take up arms against each other, but I’d be surprised if that never occurred with other families. My relatives were certainly deeply inconvenienced and divided by the war’s outbreak, even before the full impact of the conflict was felt. The census shows that Gus’s sister was staying with him in April 1911 – but from 1914 until the 1920s that easy international relationship collapsed. Continue reading »