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Losing a Father

PoppyLUCY WALTER née NEALE, was born 4th April 1907. She was the daughter of Sergeant Harold Neale, 2/3rd Kings African Rifles, who died of dysentery in East Africa in October 1917. This is an extract from her recollection of her father; one of many wonderful and moving interviews in Veterans - the Last Survivors of the Great War by Richard Van Emden and Steve Humphries (1998)

... he put his arms round me and held me so close to him I remember feeling how rough that khaki uniform was, and he said "Now I want you to promise me three things. You'll look after your mother, and I want you to go to church because I bought you that nice new prayer book and I would like to think you were going to use it and go to church, and then the last thing I want you to promise me is that you'll grow up to be a good girl." He said "You won't know what I mean now but you will as you grow older, and I do want you to be a good girl, will you promise?" and I said "Yes".

He picked me up against him and put his arms round me and held me tight to him and he kissed my cheeks and put me down and he said "You must go now, wave to me at the bottom, won't you?" And I went, I left him standing there and I went down the hill and I kept looking back and waving and he was still there, just standing there. I got to the bottom and then I'd got to turn off to go to where we lived, so I stopped and waved to him and he gestured as much as to say "Go on, you must go home now", sort of thing, ever so gently gestured, and then he waved and he was still waving when I went, and that was the last I ever saw of him.

He went back to Kidderminster and the next thing we heard he was sent off to German East Africa, Tanzania as it's now called. He wrote to me frequently from Africa, he wrote from Durban, he liked Durban, then he wrote from the loveliest place in all the world, he said, Dar-es-Salaam. I used to take his letters to school and Miss Bywater, the teacher, used to read them all to the class, I don't suppose the other girls were very interested.

I was getting ready for school one morning in October when the postman came and I picked up this registered letter. My mother opened it and it was from the Army and she just sat there and she said "Oh, he's dead", and I can't begin to tell you how I felt. I couldn't take it in for a while, but she began to cry I felt numb, absolutely numb, and my mother said "You are not going to school today, you'll have to stay at home with me".

My mother said, you'd better take this letter up to your grandmother, because she was not on good terms with my Gran, and show her. My Gran was sitting there with one of my aunts who'd come to stay from Leamington, Jessie, her eldest daughter and my father's favourite sister. So I put the letter on the table and Gran, my grandmother, said "You open it, Jess," and she opened it and said "Oh no, he's dead, Harry's dead". My poor Gran, she could only say "Oh, not another one," because she had already lost two sons in the war. Gran didn't cry, she sat there like someone made of stone, she didn't say anything, but Auntie Tess began to cry terribly I seem to remember my aunt making a pot of tea and then I said something like "I'd better go back home now ,and left.

Back home, my mother and I went to see another aunt, Auntie Fanny, who lived on a nearby farm. Auntie Fanny cried and of course my mother cried again, but I don't remember crying. I was so stunned, I couldn't believe it I'd never see him again. It is hard to realise tragedies when you're only ten years old.


I missed my father terribly, for years I missed him. I never cried when my mother read that telegram, I couldn't cry when I was with my grandmother nor when I went to see Aunt Fanny the same day, but oh dear, I did cry at night when I got into bed because it was my father who used to tuck me into bed. We would go up by candle light and kneel by the bed. It was my dad who taught me my prayers. We never hurried through them, and then he'd kiss me on my forehead, and say "Goodnight Lulu, God bless you", every night, he never failed. So for years afterwards I'd got to say my prayers because my father asked me to, we'd said our prayers together and then I did the same when I was alone, when he'd gone.

In Losing a fiancé Vera Brittain recalls visiting the grave of Roland Leighton while in Losing a brother you can read the touching story of Mary Beddoes and the 'final resting place' of her missing brother


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Sunday 18 December 2005