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I never knew him - but my great-grandad who survived trenches a key figure in my life

Fred Morrow fought at Somme; an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary times. As we mark the centenary, great-granddaughter Gail Walker is humbled by his quiet valour

Published 28/06/2016

First World War image shows British soldiers in trenches. File image
First World War image shows British soldiers in trenches. File image

When I was a child, rifling through old boxes in the attic looking for some lost book, I suddenly became aware of a pair of eyes trained upon me through the gloom. Careful not to bang my head on the sloping rafters above, I cautiously inched my way towards this intriguing intruder. Who was this handsome, fine-featured man in the soldier's uniform? Why did he look both out-of-time and vaguely familiar? And why did he look so sad? Or was I just imagining that?

It turned out this man saying hello to me down through the generations was my maternal great-grandfather and he had been to the Somme. Hello, Frederick Morrow, pleased to meet you.

As I pieced together his story over the following weeks and months, I'd climb back up there to sit alone, peering for hours at his face with its strange sense of melancholy. I'd so many questions I wanted to ask him about the war. For me, another front - one of the soul - was opening up.

I was a little girl with a big imagination and Frederick's story had so many resonances. My grandmother told me of the morning when she - around the same age that I was then - had gone with her family to wave him off to the Somme at Banbridge railway station. This troubled me greatly, for I could not imagine ever letting my own father make such a departure. I would have hidden him away. Like in Whistle Down The Wind.

As a child, my grandmother must have had exactly the same grievous concerns, because she had set about performing an astonishing act of alchemy. Somehow, she had taken the key to the house from her mother's pocket and snuck it into the pocket of her father's uniform. I think she saw this as some kind of talisman, that if he had the key then he would one day walk back through the front door again. Of course, they had to break into their own house when they returned from the station, but I was more captivated by the thought of Frederick, en route to France, discovering the key was in his pocket.

When the noise started, when he felt afraid, when he thought of home, did he reach down and touch its shiny metal surface? (Decades later, when my granny, well into her seventies, returned from my granda's funeral she couldn't find the key to the house. We all stole glances at each other. Perhaps her father was letting her know she was not alone in her grief).

And Fred did make it all the way back from France, though this was a man changed utterly by the horror he'd witnessed. I have a photo of him playing in a local football team as a teenager. He is on the cusp of manhood, full of brio. Maybe that got him through the war, but by all reports there was little of it left afterwards.

On this subject my grandmother said little, perhaps out of loyalty, perhaps taking a lead from her own father Fred's silent stoicism. But my late aunt June had prised out a few details.

There was a story of how Fred and a few other men had been sheltering in a barn some distance from the front when a man had walked in, looking more dead than alive. His face caked in mud, he was shell-shocked and muttering in distress. But as a shaft of sunlight struck the stranger's face, Fred was struck by a resemblance. "Is that you Billy?" he piped up. It was indeed Billy, a man he knew from the same village. He cleaned him up, took him under his wing and returned him home, damaged but alive.

So many families have stories like these, and they exude a strange power. A few months before her death, when my aunt was having to fight so many of her own battles, breaking out on so many fronts, I'd say to her "Is that you Billy?". And like someone not quite drowning, she'd break the surface once more, grappling with memories to find the words to tell me the story once again. I think she found solace and strength in it; the thought of what others she knew had come through helping her to endure.

Looking back, I seemed to grow up under the shadow of World Wars. Partly, I think, this was because I was born to an older father who had lived through the Second World War. As a teenager he'd watched the skies of Belfast aglow during the Blitz. One Sunday afternoon he'd heard a sickening drone and run out of his confirmation class to see a Spitfire crash in the meadow. We'd walk down the 'loan' to the canal, and he'd show me where it all happened. It was all real.

My father was kind and sensitive - as a boy he'd tried in vain to save the life of a piglet, then buried it with its little pink snout peeping out of the ground "just in case". Evidently the war had an enduring impact upon him, though there were brighter stories too, such as that of Marcel, the Belgian soldier who became a regular visitor to their farm.

As his plate was piled high, he'd say "Plenty much." That phrase, with all its reference points, survives in my family to this day. And then there was the neighbour who pledged to give his all to the war effort, grandly announcing: "Tokyo if required." He made it as far as England whereupon he was stricken with homesickness. He was back within a week. When my mother would set my father some torturous domestic chore he'd mutter under his breath: "Tokyo if required."

I'm thinking of all these people this week, but in particular Frederick Morrow, an ordinary man plunged into the extraordinary. I look at his face and see some of my own reflected back. I find it incredible to think someone so close to me did what he did. And exhilarating. And humbling.

And I reach down and check my house key is still in my pocket. And I'm half-disappointed to find that it is.

Follow me on Twitter, @GWalker9

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