My grandfather, Wilfred Lawson Burton, served in the Royal Artillery. He was a postman in Derbyshire at a time when they were asking for more volunteers to join the armed forces to go to the front and face Germany on the continent. Everyone was signing up and he did too, in December 1915. I’ve got his actual signing up papers.

IMG_0560He didn’t get sent to the front straight away. He was billeted with a family, like a lot of the troops. He was with a Belgian family and got on really well with them. There were two daughters, Esme and Yvonne, and he said to the family when he left for the front that if he ever had two daughters he’d call them Esme and Yvonne. And after the war he did – Esme, my mum, and Yvonne, my aunt. They often used to tell me the stories that my grandfather told them.

I know he served at the Somme and Passchendaele and that he went to Vimy Ridge and other really well known battlefields. The conditions in the trenches were terrible. He talked to me about the rats that infested them. There was one rat they nicknamed asthmatic Albert because he was always coughing! He remembered some pretty gruesome times. For example, once when a group of them were going to the canteen to eat there was suddenly a technical problem. My grandfather left the group and went to fix it. While he was gone, a shell hit the canteen, killing everyone inside. He was very lucky to have escaped the blast.

My most treasured possession is a Christmas card my grandfather sent home from the front in 1917. It’s beautifully embroidered and on the reverse it says:

“Just a card to wish you, darling, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Heaps of love Wilfred.” It’s amazing to think that this is still in such good condition almost a hundred years later.



My grandfather came back home to England to the great relief of the family, but there was a slight hiccough. He was a very good footballer and before the war Manchester United (Newton Heath Alliance as it was called then) wanted to sign him and take him on for trials. But his parents disapproved of football and thought Manchester was too far from where they lived in Buxton so wouldn’t allow him to go. However, his talent must have been spotted because the army wanted him to stay on after 1918 and play for them. The army football team played to a very high standard. It was full of famous footballers of the time. So Wilfred had to go back to Europe and join the army of occupation, the allied troops, based in Germany.

The amazing thing is that we’re talking about living history here. I spoke to my grandfather about his experiences in the trenches and I have been interviewed by the History Makers students so there’s a link from today’s generation to my grandfather. It may seem that a hundred years is a long time ago, but when you think of it like that it’s not so far away.

I look back on the First World War with great sadness and gratitude that my grandfather survived it, because otherwise I wouldn’t be here. They said that it was the war to end all wars. So many millions lost their lives, some not much older than the History Makers students, but there are still terrible conflicts in the world today. And with 24-hour news coverage it’s as if you are watching these tragic events unfolding before your eyes.

It’ s important to remember what people like Wilfred Lawson Burton went through to try and make the world a better place for us. And in many ways it is a better place.

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Nick Owen – Gallery