“We’re dressed for a funeral,” my 13-year-old daughter remarked, a bit doubtfully, to her brother and me as we marched down the shore road to the war memorial at Innellan, the long-ago Scottish home of one branch of her family. In one sense she was making a statement of fact. On this brisk December morning, a day after we had flown in from Washington, DC, we were darkly and formally dressed, following the sound of a bagpiper to a roadside cross.
The Lord Lieutenant of Argyll and Bute, in dress uniform and sword, was waiting there to unveil a memorial to my children’s great-great uncle. A gaggle of strangers stood beside him: the provost in his chain of office, a priest, old soldiers from the Royal British Legion, local residents. Marching down the pavement past a bus stop came three bandsmen of the Grenadier Guards in scarlet, their black bearskins ruffled by the breeze off the Firth of Clyde.
My daughter had not really been talking about her clothes. She meant that she was unsure how sad to feel about a relative she never met. Lieutenant (acting Captain) George Henry Tatham Paton of the Grenadier Guards, my father’s mother’s brother, was killed during the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. Already the holder of a Military Cross, Paton’s actions won him a posthumous Victoria Cross (VC). With British lines under German assault and in danger of collapse, he fell while rallying units left without officers and after rescuing several wounded men, leaping from trench to trench under enemy fire. He was 22.
As part of efforts to remember the first world war the British government is installing memorials – handsome, simply engraved stone slabs – in the birthplace of every person who was awarded a VC between 1914 and 1918. A county historian tracked me down a few months ago as one of Paton’s relatives and invited me to the ceremony, on the centenary of his award. I decided to take my children. In April I took them, as preparation, to northern France, to the unlovely, red-brick village where Paton fell and the war cemetery where he lies.
As a teenager I visited the same cemetery. I was only a few years younger than my great-uncle had been. I remember struggling, and largely failing, to comprehend his conscious self-sacrifice. It turned out I needed to become a parent to really grasp the human blow of his loss.
Family tin trunks are filled with letters Paton sent from France, as well as school reports and letters home from school. They reveal a daring sort: a young man to make a parent proud but anxious. In 1914, still a teenager, he headed to Germany to improve his German. The trunks record his hasty journey home as war loomed. Letters and telegrams describe a brief crisis at the Swiss frontier, an alarmingly chaotic train to Paris, and long queues for boat trains to England.
Paton volunteered for the army in September 1914, aged 19, but chafed at being assigned to training duties in England. He finally secured a transfer to the Grenadier Guards and deployment in France. Letters from the front announce gratefully the arrival of blankets and socks, though also the deaths of friends. One of his last letters, dated November 13th, 1917, thanks his mother for sending a tinned ham and a Stilton. It goes on: “While I am on the question of food can Dad please arrange to send me enough haggis for twenty people for St Andrew’s Day! I am going to give a dinner party and ask some of the Scots Guards to show them how a St Andrew’s Dinner should be run!!”
The dinner party cannot have been held. The Grenadier and Welsh Guards spent St Andrew’s Day, November 30th, trying to repel that German assault. Then they fought through the night. Paton fell in a final, chaotic action that began at dawn on December 1st.
In recent years museums have got better at telling the story of the first world war. Thanks to exhibits and memorials in London, Vimy and Arras, my teens have a more visceral sense of the trenches than I did at their age. They were caught up in the formality of the Innellan ceremony, with its Last Post and laying of poppy wreaths. But teenagers loathe a phoney, and my son, who is 14, was at pains to tell me afterwards that he did not feel grief, exactly. “I didn’t know him,” my son noted, when asked how he was doing. The day was “solemn, not sad”.
The participants closest to Paton in age, the young Grenadier guardsmen sent from London, seemed to agree. After tea in Innellan village hall they cheerily invited my son to try on a bearskin (surprisingly light). They were celebrating a member of their regiment. No need, then, for funeral gloom.