My grandfather Harold Charles Barrett was a quiet, modest and caring man. He worked hard all his life as an engineer with the Post Office, gaining promotion by studying at evening classes. This meant he was able to buy a Ford Popular car, the first car owner in our street of council houses.

Over the years my grandmother kept all his evening-class certificates in a special envelope, along with various items relating to the First and Second World Wars, including the Christmas tin he had received while at the front in 1915. I can remember her getting this tin out to polish it and his medals with Brasso when I was a small child. The metallic smell is unforgettable. Nan was very proud that my grandfather had received the medals, especially the one for distinguished service. Thinking back, she must have been polishing them up for Remembrance Sunday or Empire Day, but I wasn’t aware of that at the time.

When my grandparents died, I inherited the Christmas tin, its contents and the envelope of documents. It went with me on my travels and as I moved house from Kent to London to Montgomeryshire and eventually to Shropshire. In all that time I’d kept everything safely but never really read the documents thoroughly enough to piece together exactly what Harold Charles Barrett had done during the First World War. I now know that he had done quite a lot.

The documents photographed are:

  • Granddad’s citation as published in the London Gazette January 1919
  • His demobilization account showing he was entitled to £64 18s 5d
  • His certificate of identity
  • His certificate of employment during the war showing he rose through the ranks to be a corporal
  • Reverse of certificate showing he became an assistant instructor in signalling
  • Certificate on demobilization showing he received the Distinguished Conduct medal

My grandmother always said that granddad lied about his age so he could join up in 1914. I have a memory of watching the BBC series The Great War with him in the sixties. Nan wasn’t really interested, shows featuring Val Doonican being more to her taste. So we watched it together, week after week, with granddad saying almost nothing and me not asking. It wasn’t the way of it in those days to discuss what you saw on TV; certainly it wasn’t my grandfather’s way. I have a really vivid memory of those black-and-white images as I sat beside him – men wading through mud, horses and artillery struggling in the mire. I took it for granted that he had survived the war. I was too young to realise how death had stalked those trenches and robbed him of his companions. The enormity of the whole tragedy was beyond me.

Now I’ve taken out granddad’s medals and polished them with Brasso (some things never change) and feel privileged to be able to record that Harold Charles Barrett was commended for his bravery under fire and an example to his men for his ‘courage and cheerfulness under the most trying conditions.’