For Those We Lost … Those Who Served … and Those Who Serve Still

Like most families in Britain, ours has its own war stories. The one about the day my Nana was blown from one end of her hall to the other by a Nazi bomb that destroyed the house across the street during the Second World War.  Or the night she fell over a milk churn in the blackout and the next day gave birth to my dad. My grandfathers had stories too - about fire-watching from the roofs of Hull during the blitz and of life in the Home Guard. But it's the stories we never hear … the ones too horrible or painful to recall … that truly tell the story of the wartime experience.

My great uncle Trevor Poynton served in Burma during the Second World War. He never spoke about his experiences. His father Bill Poynton served in the Derbyshire Yeomanry in Salonika  during the Great War but, again, never discussed it.  Other great uncles fought but never discussed the fighting. They all spoke of the comradeship of course, but in reality all we have of their time in the forces are photos taken during happy times with friends, or just before embarkation with wife and child. 

There are the tales of Uncle Willie who had gone to war in 1914 and who suffered what they called in those days, shellshock, but we would know as post traumatic stress disorder. After the war he returned to his job as a barber in Spalding but would stop suddenly, in the middle of a haircut, leaving his customer sitting in the chair and just walk away. No-one provided counselling in those days and so this strange behaviour just became a part of who he was.

 Uncle Trev Poynton prior to embarkation for Burma.

There are those members of our family whose war service we know all about. But not because they have told us, or left behind some revealing diary.  We know their stories because the records reveal them. For they are the ones who went off to war and came back changed, like Willie Rippon, or who never came back at all.

Although our family survived, happily, relatively unscathed through two world wars - with most of the men who went to war able to return to live out their lives, three of our relatives did not.

Alexander Leonard Craig was my great-grandmother's brother. The son of a travelling skins salesman, he had been born in Bruges. Like his father Alexander worked in the skin trade. In 1896 he married Annie Parker in Derby, where they lived, largely untroubled by world affairs until 1914. They had one son, Leonard. At out outbreak of war Alexander joined the 10th Battalion The Sherwood Foresters - one of the local regiments - and, in mid-July 1915, after a brief farewell to his family, crossed the Channel to Boulogne. Alexander's war was to be short. The battalion was sent almost immediately to the Ypres Salient. They fought around St Eloi and eventually moved towards Sanctuary Wood. At some point, although the regimental diary seems only to note precise details for officer casualties, Alexander Craig was severely wounded. He was moved to the relative safety of a field hospital at Lijssenthoek, several miles from the front line.  But on 4 September 1915, aged just 39 years, he died.  He was buried in the hospital grounds in a spot that, after the war, was to become the second largest Commonwealth cemetery in Belgium.


Sidney Rippon was my granddad's cousin.

The son of Herbert and Emily Rippon, who had emigrated from England to New Zealand, he had married his 17-year-old sweetheart, Nancy, at the outbreak of the war. Indeed he had incurred the wrath of his commanding officers not long after that marriage, when, unable to bear the separation from his wife any longer, he had briefly gone AWOL to be with her. Shortly after being returned to his unit, he was deployed to fight in North Africa, in defence of the Mother Country on the other side of the world. There he was captured by the Italians and, like many in his position, was transferred to a Prisoner of War camp just outside Chiavari in Liguria. For many months he lived a hard, but relatively safe, life as a POW. But, in October 1942 he developed appendicitis and, despite the ministrations of the Italian nuns who ran the hospital beside the camp, died on 31 October 1942. Young Nancy was left broken-hearted and vowed never to love another. Sidney's body was eventually taken north to be buried at Milan Military Cemetery.

Claude Eric Pountain was the husband of my great aunt Esther. Uncle Eric was the brother of the well-known crooner, Denny Dennis, and something of a musician and singer himself. He joined the Merchant Navy during the Second World War and was Third Radio Officer on the SS Stonepool. In September 1941 the ship, carrying thousands of tonnes of oats, wheat and trucks, formed part of a huge convoy of some 65 ships hauling vital supplies from Canada to Britain.
As it reached the mid-way point of its journey, the convoy was informed that it had picked up a U-boat shadow. To avoid attack the ships moved close to the coast of Greenland but from the early hours of 11 September several U-boats torpedoed the convoy, sinking many vessels. The Stonepool was one of the first to be attacked. It sank quickly and with the loss of some 52 men, Uncle Eric among them. There was little time to recover the dead and so Uncle Eric, like so many merchant seamen, has no known grave. His name, however, appears on the Tower Hill Memorial.

Sidney and Nancy Rippon on their wedding day in New Zealand.