My father’s name was Leonard Joseph Purcell and he lived in Camberwell in South London. He was a choirboy and an altar boy at Westminster Cathedral. He was too young at the time to enlist in World War One (he was 12), but he was a boy scout. His troop was asked if they would volunteer to go into one of the local hospitals, which had been taken over for wounded and convalescent soldiers, and just run errands for them. I don’t know how many of the boys actually did volunteer but my dad certainly did, and he used to go in two or three afternoons a week, after school, and just do any odd little thing. They might say, ‘I would like you to go out to the tobacconist and get me some cigarettes,’ and he would do that. Or maybe they wanted a packet of sweets or something.
Sometimes it would be notepaper, envelopes, postage stamps, because they would want to write home. If someone perhaps had lost some fingers in the war, or even had a whole limb amputated, then they would want to write to their family and just let them know that they were OK. Some were blind so they couldn’t see to write, and they would dictate letters; obviously nothing really personal, just ‘Hello, mum, I’m fine’. My father would write the letter for them and post it.
I always remember him being a very patient man with a great sense of humour – we often enjoyed a joke. And he was quite kind and never knowingly did a bad turn to anyone. He lived until he was 90, and for the last few of these years he was blind, so he had to be very patient, because he had always loved reading. The photograph I’m holding here shows him in later years.
I think the First World War was the most tremendous and stupid waste of life, a cause of suffering, and could surely have been avoided with just a little common sense on all sides. We’ve got to make sure it doesn’t happen again.