One hundred years on from the First World War, and ahead of our performances of Lest We Forget, we asked members of our company to share their family stories about the conflict and relatives who lived through the war. Here are some of them.

Memorial of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey. Photo by Mike. Used under Creative Commons License.

Laura Howes, Trust & Research Manager

“My great grandfather Albert was one of the masons who engraved the grave of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey.

He lived in Harrow all his life, and after the war was working for the firm Alfred Tomes & Son in Acton. His employer, Mr Tomes, supplied the black marble headstone for the memorial. The inscription on the stone, written by the Dean of Westminster, was sent to him and his colleagues for engraving and lettering. The Unknown Warrior was buried in 1920, and the stone placed the following year, at a special service.

My great-uncle remembers his father talking about working on it and has passed the fact down the family. I can’t imagine how he must have felt working on this symbolic monument.”

Medals of Captain Henry Haughey M.C.

Anne Martin, First Violin, English National Ballet Philharmonic

“These military medals belonged to my great uncle, Captain Henry Haughey M.C. He was born in the 1880s in the Shankill parish of Lurgan in Northern Ireland.

By the time the First World War broke out, CSM Haughey of the Royal Irish Fusiliers had been in the army for over a decade. He had fought and been decorated in the South African Boer War and won sporting cups for his company in cross-country running, bayonet fighting and shooting.

As a proficient army physical training instructor he spent the first year and a half of the war training soldiers in Donegal, before being posted on the Western Front in February 1916. By May 1917 he had received a commission in the field of battle as a Second Lieutenant, and through a battlefield injury was evacuated to England for medical treatment. He returned to his battalion in July 1917.

On 24 August 1918, he led his two companies of four hundred men against the German trenches, overcoming them with a surprise dawn attack. For this action he was awarded the Military Cross for “gallantry and initiative”. His citation in the London Gazette described how “his cheerful courage and power of command greatly encouraged his men”. In April 1919, he retired with the formal rank of Captain.

He died in 1951, and his medals are now on permanent display in the Royal Irish Fusiliers’ Museum in Armagh, Northern Ireland – something my family and I feel very proud of.”

Richard Dilley, French Horn, English National Ballet Philharmonic

“My great grandfather, Henry was a Private in the 2nd Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. He arrived on the Somme front in 1915 and spent many months there in the lead up to the battle. On the first day of the battle in July 1916 the Middlesex regiment lead the attack at Mash Valley near Ovillers and Henry was killed in action whilst attacking the German front lines. The battalion suffered over 650 casualties on that first day. He was 36 when he died, leaving behind his wife and my Grandfather who was 8 at the time.”

Albert Bann's Bible

Jane Haworth, Principal Character Artist

“This Bible belonged to my great grandfather Albert, who died at the battle of Ypres in August 1918. His body was never found, so he is one of the thousands who have their names carved into the memorial there.

His Bible was found by a fellow soldier, Gilbert Draper, who tried to return it to Albert’s family after the war. Unfortunately, the address he had written in the Bible was no longer current: his wife and children (one of them my Grandmother) had moved. It was only in 2014 that it was returned to us, when that soldier’s descendants managed to track us down. To be handed this item so precious to him, now a relic, was a very emotional moment. This year, my brother is going to Ypres to mark the 100th anniversary of Albert’s death: he will be taking this Bible with him.”

Benjamin Lalague, Marketing Manager

“My great granfather Dominique was conscripted in August 1914, leaving his small village in South West France, and his 10-month old son (my grandad), behind. He was a stretcher bearer in the 22eme Section d’Infirmiers Militaires based near Paris – fetching injured soldiers on the front and bringing them back to hospitals.

He returned home decorated for his bravery, but also suffering from pulmonary complications due to gas inhalations. He died from them in 1921, his three children all under the age of 8. His wife did not request for his death to be recognised as caused by the war, and so did not receive veteran widows’ benefits.”

Claire Hawk, Director of HR and Organisation Development

“Tom Dixon was my father’s uncle. He joined in November 1914, and sailed for France in February 1915. Having survived an enemy gas attack in Ypres, he was promoted L/Cpl in April 1915, but got wounded to the head the following month. He returned to Britain until November 1915, when he rejoined the front. He spent the rest of the war in Northern France, earning himself a Military Cross (and more serious wounds) again at Ypres. His citation read: “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty as a transport officer when in charge of pack animals carrying machine guns and ammunition forward during an attack. He showed the greatest pluck and coolness in guiding the animals across enemy trenches (…) His men said that it was impossible for any officer to set them a finer example. He was severely wounded.”

He stayed in the army for another 20 years, retiring as Major in 1938.

He kept a diary throughout his time in the war. It makes for a fascinating read. He wrote about being in battle, watching shells exploding away in the distance, hearing bullets whistling all around him! I particularly liked this entry from April 1915: “Today [the Germans] threw a piece of paper over fastened to a parsnip, on it was written: ”our rifles sing a song of hate”. A sergeant of the 2nd KO put on “we do not hate, we fight like men. How would half an hour’s bayonet exercise be.” We have not yet received the reply.” It’s moving to see that despite the sacrifices they often kept their good humour.”

English National Ballet in Liam Scarlett's No Man's Land © Photography by ASH.

Susan Croot, Violin, English National Ballet Philharmonic

“My maternal grandmother Florence was one of the ‘canaries’ – women who worked in munition factories, so-called because of the yellow dust that would cover them by the end of a daily shift.

When we were performing Lest We Forget for the first time at the Barbican in 2014, I was going down in the lift to the Orchestra pit before a performance when I was suddenly joined by one of the female dancers with her yellow hands, and was obviously a ‘canary’ in the piece No Man’s Land (pictured). I felt a huge wave of emotion and a sense of loss for a grandmother that I never knew, and have felt like this at every performance ever since.

Florence worked for Pembrey Munitions at their largest factory in Wales. It was one of the first TNT manufacturing sites in the UK that was built for that specific purpose. Initially privately-owned, it was taken over by the Ministry of Munitions in 1917, becoming the National Explosives Factory (NEF Pembrey).

There was a level of safety awareness: the workers wore overalls and rubber gloves, and even metal hair clips were forbidden. However no masks were given to prevent them from inhaling the dust as they packed shells with explosives. My grandmother died from heart/respiratory problems, probably as a result of the dust inhalation, in 1942, when my own mum was just 12 years of age.

My great-uncle Bob (who was Florence’s younger brother) served in the trenches at the Front. He survived the war and was called up for active service at the start of the WWII because he was still young enough for active duty. It was only then that he was diagnosed as suffering from shell shock and what we would now call PTSD and was admitted to a mental institute for his illness.”

Details of Malcom Scrivener letters

Matthew Scrivener, Leader, English National Ballet Philharmonic

“My Grandfather Malcom Sydney Scrivener, volunteered in 1916 aged 19 years old, to serve with the East Surrey Regiment. He remained enlisted until 1919. Throughout his time on the front, he wrote several letters to his younger brother, Desmond.

Although Malcolm Scrivener, like all other serving soldiers, would have witnessed some horrific events he does not like referring to the reality of warfare. In one letter, he replies angrily at a “request for gory detail” and in another he simply refers to “having to return to work… ” without further explanation. He does, however, describe aeroplane battles in the air as witnessed from the front.

It’s possible that given the content of the letters, some of them may not have been censored. Malcom sends lyrics of soldiers’ songs mocking army doctors and their reliance on the “No 9 pill” to cure any ailment. The “No.9 pill” turned out to be a laxative! Other songs were mocking superior officers; for example, “If you want to find the Officer, I know where he is, I know where he is, I know where he is… He’s down in a deep dugout, I’ve seen him”. Some of the letters even had drawings of trenches, duckboards and tents.

He was captured in early 1918, and was put to work in a steel plant in Germany. From discussions with his son Robert (my father), it transpired that when he was captured in St. Quentain, he was relieved of his rifle but forgot to hand in his knife that was attached to a holster strapped to his lower leg. Whilst being marched to a holding camp he attempted to hand over this knife to an accompanying German soldier who told him to keep it for his own security!

My Grandfather had the utmost respect for the enemy and whilst in captivity, credited the German medical officers for saving his life after he fell seriously ill. After the Armistice was signed, Malcom remained in the army and was involved in the process of demobilising soldiers whilst being based in Kingston-upon-Thames. During that time, he began writing in French, at the request of his brother: his grammar was not perfect and he makes a colourful use of certain words, berating his brother with “Chien, hibou! Vache!” (Dog, owl! Cow!) for not putting enough stamps on his letters.

When I first read his letters in 1991, it was one of the most moving moments of my life: It was hard to realise that given the maturity of the writing, that they had been written by a young man of some 19 years.

I have mentioned some of the drawings that accompanied these letters. Inexplicably, there is a picture of violinist without any reference in the accompanying letter. Over the years, I have pondered the reason for this picture. Whatever the inspiration, it is deeply humbling to live a comparative life of luxury within the world of the Arts, when I consider the desperate conditions afforded my Grandfather because of what he and several thousand others of all nations sacrificed in order for the following generations to live in a civilised society. A Europe in turmoil Separated by a century to the peaceful, unified Europe of today.”

Your Comments