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A brother, a mother, a father - victims of the first world war left behind by a dead soldier

Who should we remember in the first world war centenary year of 2014? Richard Longstaff, researching the military records of his great uncle killed in 1918, says the victims were not only those killed or wounded in action.

richard and joe longstaff

Joe Longstaff standing and Richard Longstaff, sat in his new uniform, fresh from training. Photo taken in April 1916.

The first thing that entered my mind on receiving the records from the National archives was "Thank God my father isn't here to read them".

You see Joseph William Longstaff had become quite a obsession to my father. He had been named after him by his father, Joe's brother Richard. He had learnt of his "uncle Joe" from the age of fourteen and had promised himself that one day he would visit his grave in France.

"I was within twenty miles of it once, 1940 when I was running like hell to get to Dunkirk" he said with a smile.

His promise was kept and in the June of 1990 he made his visit to the small British cemetery, Flesquieres Hill. There under the welcome shade of a tall popular tree in the searing heat he laid a small bunch of flowers and wept.

Not a man for showing his emotions, a world war two veteran, a former coal miner he was reserved you could say. But that day it all flooded out.

"I wish I could find his records, build a picture of what he did, what happened to him. You see my dad, your granddad never told me. They had been in the war together but he never spoke of it."

Two years later my father died. The fragments of information he had, some old hand written notes he had made and a few old photographs were handed down to me.

I did nothing with this information for fifteen years. It sat in a old shoe box and still would have been there had I not found myself at a loose end between writing projects. I decided to look through it and put it in some kind of order. I have been putting it in order ever since. Five years of putting it in order, researching it and adding to it.

I managed, thanks to the digital age to obtain Joe's full military records from the National archives and from this I have the "full picture" my father so longed for. It is a vision of hell, a living, breathing hell.

No wonder my granddad never spoke of his experiences of the first world war. If they were anything like that of his brothers then what words could he have used to tell his story? I will tell it for them and at the end all I ask is that you, the reader, take a moment to think. Think of all you hold dear, of your life and how a conflict would impact on it.

Joseph William Longstaff was born on the sixth of March 1895 in Willington, County Durham. The son of Margaret and John Longstaff. His brother Richard was born two years later and despite the age difference they was extremely close. Where ever Joe went so would his little brother.

Their father was a blacksmith at the local coal mine, their mother would take in washing in order to make extra money to feed the family. As the boys grew so did the number of children and by the time Joe was fourteen two sisters and another brother had been added to the family.

With such a large family Joe had to leave school at fourteen to earn his keep and help out. Instead of going to the coal mine he went into "service" and became a table boy or servant for one of the local mine owners families. He lived in and would only return home on a Sunday.

When war broke out in the Summer of 1914 Joe was 19 years of age and like most other youths of his generation keen to join up. John, his father, a deeply religious man and lay preacher pleaded with him no to go. All the talk of the war being over by Christmas gave John a bargaining chip. If by November the war was still raging then he would grant his son permission to join up.

November came, the war went on and John stuck to his word. Joe enlisted in the newly formed Royal Naval Division. By January 1915 Joe was training in London's Crystal Palace before moving to Dorset to complete his basic training.

In June, Joe, now a fully trained able seaman received his first posting. He was off to the shores of Gallipoli. Here, aged 20, new to war, to the world beyond England he was part of one of the greatest military disasters in history. Two hundred and forty men from Joe's battalion died in the first twenty four hours at Gallipoli. None could be buried thanks to the constant danger from Turkish snipers. The smell, the flies, the horrors changed Joe from a raw new recruit into a battle hardened soldier. After months living in this awful conditions Joe took ill with paratyphoid, a direct result of eating food contaminated by flies. He was hospitalized as a result and transferred by hospital ship back to England in the March of 1916.

He came home to find that his younger brother, Richard had also been called up. He had not volunteered and had hoped to remain in the reserved occupation of a coal miner. But the government needed more men due to the loses in both Gallipoli and France. Richard was conscripted into his local regiment, the Durham Light Infantry.

The photograph shows them together, Joe standing and Richard sat in his new uniform fresh from training. It was taken in the April of 1916. That month Joe returned to Dorset to train and get his fitness up to full strength and Richard joined the 12th battalion DLI in France. They would not see each other again until the November of 1917.

Richard was the first to see action in France. His battalion was involved in the battles of Somme offensive that began in the March of 1916. Loses in his battalion were extremely high.

Joe arrived in France in the September. He was not fully fit as you can see from his records. This made no difference and he was soon in the front line with the Nelson Battalion of the Royal Naval Division.

At some point, Joe and Richard would have been on the Somme together and fighting within three miles of each other. Richard fought on the Somme from day one of the main offensive, 1st July 1916, Joe reached the battle field in the September.

Joes records for his time in France are littered with visits to field hospitals. He suffers all kinds of illnesses. Scabies from the dirt of life in the trenches, hypothermia from the cold and wet. The day in day out reality of war, the mud, the bodies, the constant fear of death.

By 1917 Richard had been moved to the Ypres sector. All former coal miners were being transferred ready for the battle of Messines Ridge. Their skills at tunnelling were needed so a huge land mine could be placed under the German lines. Richard fitted the bill and worked in the network of narrow tunnels under the front line.

On the 7th of July 1917 over one million pounds of high explosives was detonated. Ten thousand German men were killed by these land mines. Richard moved forward from his trench with the rest of his Battalion. He was caught in a massive artillery barrage and received server wounds to his right leg. His war was over and in the next few weeks he would find himself back in England on the ward of Newcastle Military Hospital.

Joe knew nothing of this. He remained in France. His unit was also on the Ypres sector and Joe was to see action at the battle of Passchendaele in the October of 1917. It has become synonymous with the appalling nature of the first world war. After weeks of fighting, and over two years since he was last at home, Joe was granted leave in the November of 1917.

He had two weeks away from the war. He came home to find Richard still recovering from his wounds and both his parents and his siblings half starved from rationing. No one knew that this would be the last time they saw him.

How he every returned to the horrors of France, after two weeks of family and home comforts, I shall never know. Joe returned to the Nelson battalion in mid November and soon found himself back at the front line.

On the 10th of December 1917 Joe's battalion moved into the Cambrai sector of France. Plans had been formulated by the high command for a all out offensive in this area that could end the war early, hopefully by the new year. On 23rd of December Joe was promoted to able seaman higher grade, his first and last promotion. He spent Christmas in the snow, in a freezing trench. On News Year's Eve, the Germans launched a counter attack on Joe's trench using flame throwers for the very first time. Most of his battalion died. Joe survived and after a British counter attack Joe found himself back in his old trench, neither side had gained anything.

On the 3rd of January 1918, the Nelson Battalion war diary states, "Heavy enemy sniper activity, one loss today". That loss was my great uncle, Joseph William Longstaff, aged 23. He was buried by the Reverent G.B. Grosthwaite, in a short service no doubt under fire from the enemy. Joe's family would find out of his death a week later by telegram.

So who do we remember in the centenary year of 2014?

Joe?

We mark his and all the other deaths in conflict every November.

Maybe we should remember his brother Richard. He never recovered from his wounds fully. He was unable to return to coal mining and had to take on a less well paid job on the surface of the local colliery. He never spoke of the war, he drank too much, saw his marriage fail. He felt guilty according to his younger sister. Guilty that Joe had volunteered and been killed and that he had waited to be called up and survived.

Perhaps we should remember him next year or we could remember John their father. He gave up preaching. He lost his faith all together. After visiting Joe's grave in 1922 thanks to a government subsidised travel scheme he never spoke to anyone ever again. The doctors claimed it was the shock of seeing his son's grave that has caused his muteism. John died in 1934. Or we could hold a service for Joe's mother, Margaret. She died in 1940 with a photograph of Joe in her hand.

All these people, all in their own way victims of war. Is there really anything to celebrate? Shall we as individuals, as a nation mark the start of the first world war or mourn the passing of peace? I ask you the reader to decide.


Joe Longstaff's Military Records

Click image to see record

Joe LongstaffMilitary Record 1915
Joseph William Longstaff joined the army 7 January 1915, aged 19

Joe LongstaffMilitary Record 1916
Joe Longstaff invalided back home to Plymouth hospital.

Joe LongstaffMilitary Record 1917-1918
September 1917 Joe Longstaff leaves hospital and rejoins his battalion in France. 16 January 1918 killed in action.

Joe LongstaffMilitary Record 1919-1920
24 September 1919 Joe Longstaff buried in Cambrai, France. Body exhumed 18 June 1920 and buried at Flesquieres British cemetary, France.


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