Sunday, November 11, 2007


The Menin Gate, Ypres

On the 11th of November 1918, the Great War finally ended. The conflict had resulted in the deaths of over 20 million people, injured more than twice that number, and destroyed families on almost every continent. As a result, the 11th day of the 11th month was declared a day of remembrance for those who had fallen, and the 11th hour when the treaty was signed became a poignant moment of reflection. Today is Remembrance Day, when we think back on those who have given their lives - or who had theirs taken away - by war and conflict. Up and down the country ceremonies are held and wreaths of scarlet poppies laid, and old men don uniforms to honour their friends who died in the fighting.

The largest gatherings are at the Cenotaph in London, a city highly familiar with war. It was here in 1897 that a french polisher called George Curtis and his wife Rose had a baby boy, whom they named Ernest. Raised in the east London area of Bow, Ernest had three brothers and three sisters. He must have had a hectic childhood as part of a large family in the centre of one of the busiest industrial cities in the world, at the end of the Victorian era. I don't know where he went to school or what kind of a career he was thinking of going into - maybe he was considering following his father into the family business. However, in 1914 the escalation of a conflict in the Balkans resulted in the German empire crossing through neutral Belgium to attack France, drawing the British into war. Ernest, who was now 17, joined the army.

He joined the London Regiment, 2/9th battalion, commonly known as the Queen Victoria Rifles. A Terratorial force created during the war to bolster numbers, they were part of the 2/1st London Division. In May 1915 they became the 175th Brigade of the 58th Division, having been merged with other local units such as the Hackneys and the Finsbury Rifles. In late January 1917 the entire 58th was relocated to France, to serve on the Western Front. The Queen Victoria's had a distinguished record already, with the 1st-Line battalions having fought at Neuve-Chapelle in March 1915, during which Lieutenant Geoffrey Woolley became the first Territorial Army soldier to win the Victoria Cross. A memorial to him and the Queen Victoria's still stands at the top of Hill 60, as the vantage point they fruitlessly defended was named.

Ernest and his mates must have heard stories about these acts of bravery. As their 2nd-Line regiments were deployed in the front lines, talk of previous battles would have been ever present. They would have seen the injured men removed from the lines, and the devastation caused by continuous shelling and bombardment. The British and Allied troops had been fighting for over two years, losing and re-taking the same ground, and calling up reserves to replace shattered divisions. Ernest's 58th Division were sent to the lowlands of Belgium. On the 17th of June engineers detonated nineteen enormous mines that had been painstakingly planted under the German positions at Messines Ridge, killing upwards of 10,000 in a single moment.

We don't know where Ernest fought in the upcoming battles - or even if he did - but after the June attack at Messines the conditions became truly awful. August 1917 was appallingly wet, reducing the boggy wetlands of Flanders to deep mud. The famous photographs of soldiers walking on wooden duckboards through lunar landscapes were taken at this time, during the third battle of Ypres. Soldiers who slipped off these boards often sank within seconds, weighed down by their equipment. The bloodbath continued - at Pilckem Ridge the allies lost 32,000 casualties gaining 2000 yards. It's inconceivable what these men went through, the things they saw and experienced.

After the weather destroyed any chance of large-scale offensives, a new strategy of short attacks was decided upon by the allied commanders. This was launched in September 1917. On the 8th of September, Ernest was killed in action. We don't know where he was, or what he was doing, or even how he died. He was 20, and his body was never found. The war continued without him, involving notorious battles at Polygon Wood and Passchendaele. His unit was merged with others as they all lost men - the Finsbury Rifles were disbanded completely after their casualties. The fighting would continue for another 14 months after Ernest's death, until the armistace on the 11th of November 1918.

After the war his sister Ethel married a man called Alfred Dodds. They had a daughter named Elsie, who is my Grandmother. Ernest Curtis was my great great Uncle. One of his other sisters, Rose, kept a framed picture of him in uniform on her wall until she died. As his remains were never recovered, his name was placed on the Menin Gate in Ypres with the inscriptions of 54,322 others who also have no known resting place. He has an entry on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database - 'Rifleman EV Curtis (391842) London Regiment, Queen Victoria Rifles. Casualty number 1608861.' My parents have been to see his name on Panel 54 of the Menin Gate, and one day I will too. Until then, all I can do is remember him and all the others during this Remembrance Sunday.

Casualty 1608861, Rifleman EV Curtis
Geoffrey Woolley VC and Hill 60