“I will meet you under the picture of the big blue brain.”
This email message set me wondering what the big blue brain might be as I travelled to London to meet Dr Emily Mayhew, Historian in Residence, Department of Bioengineering, at Imperial College London on a surprisingly sunny morning in February 2019. I had watched an episode of ICONS, on BBC 2 a month earlier. During the programme, Dr Mayhew and Chris Packham explored the contribution that Marie Curie made to science. Marie Curie is the first and only woman to be awarded two Nobel Prizes: one for Chemistry and another for Physics.
One of the outstanding achievements, discussed by the two presenters of the programme, related to Marie Curie’s work on radiation. This ground-breaking work resulted in the development of a portable X-ray machine. This device, transported in a modified ambulance, could be brought to the front to examine wounded soldiers. Marie Curie deployed her portable unit at the French front in the First World War. As a result of watching the episode of ICONS, Dr Mayhew’s expertise and knowledge of treating wounds in a war zone was clearly in evidence.
In the early days of researching There Was A Soldier (published in April 2021), one of the gaps in my knowledge concerned the consequences of my grandfather’s wounds during the Battle of Loos in September 1915. He was wounded in the leg and stomach and lay for several days before being picked up by German stretcher bearers. I needed to talk to an expert about his experience: I decided to contact Dr Mayhew.
I tried to remember what Dr Mayhew looked like as I stood before a large image of an active brain that occupied most of the wall behind the reception desk in the main entrance of Imperial College. This must be known locally as the big blue brain by staff and students. After a few moments, Dr Mayhew approached, introduced herself and we repaired to a coffee shop.
Dr Mayhew was kind enough to give me some of her time. She outlined how my grandfather’s wounds would have been treated in a hospital behind the lines and his prospect for recovery. Our meeting proved to be highly valuable in the context of researching this part of my grandfather’s story. Dr Mayhew’s book, Wounded: A New History of the Western Front in World War I, helped to further my insight into what happened to my grandfather after his capture.
Dr Mayhew suggested that I contact a branch of the Western Front Association with a view to offering to give them a talk about my grandfather. “They make for keen, well-informed audiences and aren’t bad for sales either.”
I looked up the Western Front Association. Its website states: The Western Front Association was formed in 1980 to maintain interest in the period 1914-1918, to perpetuate the memory, courage, and comradeship of those on all sides who served their countries in France and Flanders and their own countries during the Great War.
Fast forward three years to Saturday 21st May 2022, a warm spring day. My wife, Annette, drove me to Sutton Coldfield. We used our new satnav to find our way (after two attempts) to Trinity Hall on the edge of the town centre. A children’s party had just finished when we arrived early. Children and parents piled out of the hall and cars began to leave the crowded car park. Where were we to park?
As promised in an email from Rod Lewis, the Honorary Secretary of the Birmingham branch of the Western Front Association, a parking space had been reserved for us. A member of staff from the Hall removed the cones and we exercised the speaker’s privilege. A very nice gesture reserved for the day’s speaker: yours truly.
The ambience of the hall reminded me of a typical village hall, despite its location on the edge of the town. A few elderly folk – just like me I suppose – had seated themselves here and there. A gentleman manned a desk just inside the door: collecting something? I surmised. A couple of tables were placed at the front, along with a lectern, the latter suggesting that it would soon be occupied by the speaker. Initially, there were no signs of any technology to show my carefully prepared presentation.
Several minutes before 2.00 o’clock the Chairman of the branch, Jonathan Dale, arrived at set up the presentation computer and attempted to start a Zoom meeting. Apparently, a member from Israel would be attending on-line. Unfortunately, Jonathan couldn’t set up the remote meeting, so he live-streamed it using his phone instead. By now, the audience had grown to about twenty or so members.
Before my presentation began, Rod read a brief testimonial to a fallen solider, a Frenchman. The branch always read a testimonial to a fallen soldier from one side or the other at the start of its meetings. Everyone stood for this moving moment of quiet reflection.
My presentation covered how my grandfather’s story came to light and how I came to write it, as well as a brief outline of what happened to him during and after the Battle of Loos in September 1915. I finished with an old photograph of my grandfather and grandmother taken in the 1950s, followed by an image of the front cover of the book.
The audience proved to be very knowledgeable and asked some challenging questions after a break for a cup of tea: another village hall touch, as was the raffle after the Q and A session at the end of my talk. In his summary, the Chairman commented on the twist in the story that I revealed at the end.
My presentation seemed to be well-received. Jonathan emailed after the event to say “Your story is a wonderful personal tale which makes a point amongst the grand strategy and tactics which we usually talk about.”
Some days after the event, I was pleasantly surprised to notice a post on the branch’s website, probably posted by Jonathan:
If readers of this post are intrigued to know the reveal at the end of the story of my grandparents, then the best way to find out is to read the whole story There Was A Soldier available as an e-book, a paperback, or a hardback from Amazon.