CEO letter | The Known Soldier
An old dinner jacket hangs at the back of a wardrobe at my parent’s house. Smartly cut, it’s made of a thick barathea, with grosgrain lapels and silk passementerie waistcoat buttons. The high-waisted trousers have an elegant pleat and, although made more than a century ago, it appears not to have had a great deal of wear.
When I was a child I used to take it out to have a closer look and invent stories about its owner – I imagined him enjoying a cigarette and whisky with water before dinner, perhaps a little hesitant in the company of women, and particularly shy of one – more dear to him than the rest – of whom he has hopes. I imagined him with a diffident charm and a quiet ambition – dreaming about how he might get on and go far in the family business, but always modest about his successes and rueful of failings. Perhaps, if things in the firm went well enough, and he overcame his shyness enough to ask his girl to marry him, they’d honeymoon in Paris. If they had sons, would they, like him, be in the school’s first eleven, go to his college, follow him into the business?
I could imagine and invent all I liked: the man for whom the dinner jacket was made, Lieutenant Bertram Victor Brocklebank, a cousin of my grandfather, died on 31st July 1917, commanding No.4 Company, 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards. He was twenty-five. Age shall not weary them. The main offensive of the 3rd Battle of Ypres – Passchendaele – began at zero hour (3.50 am) on 31st July. By 9.30, Lt Brocklebank was dead.
At 9.30am the two parts of the Battalion began to consolidate and a contact aeroplane flew over the position. Flares were lit. Unfortunately, at this moment, a German flew very low – about 100 feet – over the Battalion in a captured English aeroplane with a black cross painted very indistinctly on it. The position of consolidation was thus given away to the enemy and came under very accurate artillery fire. There were many casualties. Lt.B.V.Brocklebank commanding No 4 Coy was killed and Lt. A.W.Kirk commanding No 3 Coy was wounded. 2nd Lt.L.C.Leggatt of No 3 Coy was killed leaving Lt.G.R.M.Caldwell as the sole surviving officer. By later on in the day, all the Sergeants had been killed or wounded. [transcribed by my father from the operations report of the day, now in the Guards museum]
Bertie was but one of 32,000 Allied casualties on 31st July, for an advance of around 2,000 yards. I say a special prayer for him every Remembrance Sunday, not because he was especially heroic, or even a particularly close member of my family, but because every time I see his dinner jacket, hanging there, I imagine what he, and every soldier killed in every conflict, might have become.
This year, I will be adding those from Walpole member brands who gave their lives in battle to my prayers – not least Lance Corporal Harold Wainwright of the Cheshire Regiment who was killed by sniper fire on 30th October 1915. Until he joined up, he had been running Boodle and Dunthorne (now Boodles) with his father, Henry Wainwright and brother, Herbert. He would be the Great Uncle and Great Great Uncle of the fifth and sixth generations running Boodles today.
To commemorate the centenary of the Armistice that ended the First World War, the Walpole team will visit the new installation at the Tower of London, which, as part of Historic Royal Palaces, is a long-standing member of Walpole. Beyond the Deepening Shadow: The Tower Remembers will fill the moat with thousands of individual flames: a public act of remembrance for the lives of the fallen, honouring their sacrifice. It’s an evolving installation, unfolding each evening between 17.00 and 21.00 over the eight nights leading up to and including Remembrance Sunday on 11th November, with the tower moat gradually illuminated by flames, accompanied by a specially-commissioned sound installation, at the centre of which is a new choral work, with words from War Poet, Mary Borden’s Sonnets to a Soldier.
I will be at the Tower of London with members of the Walpole team from 5pm on Friday 9th November – if you’d like to join us, please drop me a line and I will let you know where we are meeting.
For every fallen soldier, not just in the First World War but in all subsequent battles, there are many more who return home wounded, either in body or mind, or who struggle to readjust away from the battlefield. This is hard enough for service men and women, but also has a huge impact on those close to them . Often, after a deployment in a combat situation –Afghanistan or Iraq for example – the family dynamic can change considerably and it can be stressful for both the service personnel and their families to readjust to a life together again, in a domestic situation that may be different from the one they left. Through Lady Kitty Spencer, a great friend to Walpole, we’ve come to learn more about her charity, Give Us Time, which works to provides families with time to reconnect in a peaceful environment. Give Us Time takes commercially let accommodation donated by owners of holiday groups, hotels, holiday homes and timeshares and matches them with military families in need of rest, rehabilitation and reconnection with their families. If you have a property which could be suitable, please get in touch with Give Us Time, or to donate follow this link. It’s a terrific charity and I know they’d very much appreciate any offers of help.
Finally, if you can’t join us on Friday 9th, do try to catch the installation at The Tower next week before the flames go out, for the final time, on 100 years of the First World War. Lest we forget.