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By jonathanruffle, Jul 11 2013 02:25PM

It is quite common for most British people in my age group to have had both their grandfathers serve in WW1.

Nowadays of course, the talk is of four great-grandfathers serving, and soon it will be sixteen great-great grandfathers.

But before we get lost in that genealogical soup (and what about all those grandmothers?), I wanted to do some research on my three grandfathers. My father’s father - Horace - served in the Royal West Surrey’s and my mother’s father - James - served in the Essex Regiment.

But that wasn’t the end of it. My grandmother on my mother’s side was married twice, and her first husband was killed in WW1. (She met and married James soon after, my mother and her siblings all a product of this second marriage.) In total, then, I have three WW1 grandfathers.

So who was Grandfather Number One? By some irony, it is his WW1 medals we have, rather than any of the others. And on the rim? Lieut Percy Leonard Fowler, 29 Bn AIF.

Medal rolls haven’t been privatised in Australia, so it was not only speedy but also free to discover more about my new Australian grandfather over the internet.

Son of Alexander Robert and Irene M Fowler of Avoca, Tasmania, he was born in 1891. It seems to be a mining area so he was unsurprisingly an assayer before joining up in 1915, embarking as a sergeant in the 29th Battalion for France on 10th November of that year.

He has a fascinating war career - I bet your grandpa does too, so I won’t bore you with it - but perhaps the thing I found most striking was the number of times he was wounded (requiring hospitalisation - five times) and the number of times he had PUO, or pyrexia of unknown origin, the wartime stab-in-the-dark for what was commonly known as trench fever. Not only did he get it seven times (though I may be re-admitting him for some cases twice) but he was sent to recover in England rather than France. He was also sent here on bombing courses.

At some point he met and married my grandmother who was working as a waitress at the Strand Palace Hotel in London. Percival Fowler was killed on 8th August 1918 in an attack near Corbie, by a shell, instantaneously. Who know what that might mean in reality? He is buried in Plot 2, Row F, Grave 2 of the Corbie Communal Cemetery Extension, France, and remembered on panel 115 of the Australian War Memorial.

Writing this makes me inexplicably sad for a man to whom my connection is fleeting, to say the least. But he needs someone to remember him from what would have been his new family, as I am sure he is commemorated by his family down under. He rests a long way from home: I shall go see him the next time I am over there.

Had he lived, as they say, I might have been speaking Australian. On another day I will trace the movements of his battalion and that of my other maternal grandfather and see if Percival and James could have met -- before either met my grandmother.

By jonathanruffle, Jun 20 2013 03:41PM

ALI AND NINO is another FWW drama scheduled for production. It's based on a novel by Kurban Said, set in Azerbaijan. To be adapted by the man who adapted ATONEMENT, Christopher Hampton, and directed by Asif Kapadia.

By jonathanruffle, May 21 2013 03:08PM

In the light of my previous post, here’s a quick round-up of current WW1 media projects.

Nicolas Roeg is developing AT SUNSET, based on a romance between - to quote Screen International - “a young, British Army sniper and a wealthy, French landowner behind enemy lines.”

There are two Lawrence of Arabia projects in the pipeline. Broadcast says one is with the BBC and prodcos Tiger Aspect and Lookout Point. It’s a mini-series written by William Boyd.

The other has a working title of LAWRENCE, and is a 6x60-minute series directed and produced by Roland Emmerich, he of INDEPENDENCE DAY and THE PATRIOT.

Tony Jordan has come up with THE GREAT WAR for BBC1, the story of “two very ordinary young men who enlist in a war they expect will be over within months. As the conflict unfolds, so do the boys stories, as they grow up amid the horror of war, and find love.” It’s a 5x30-minute drama is produced by Red Planet Pictures through BBC Cymru Wales Drama.

Modesty forbids me going on too much about TOMMIES, the biggest ever drama commission for BBC Radio 4, set to transmit in real-time over 2014-2018 in 30 episodes. It is to be produced by myself, building on my experience of the real-time drama/documentary BOMBER, also broadcast on Radio 4.

By jonathanruffle, May 14 2013 10:41AM

We’ll be treated soon to PEAKY BLINDERS on the BBC, set in Birmingham after the First World War.

PEAKY BLINDERS is based on the gangsters of the same name: they had razor blades sewn into the peaks of their caps, and one swipe of that - you get the picture.

They terrorised Birmingham in the early 1920’s in the style of a British Al Capone - a sort of BROADSTREET EMPIRE, if you will.

Jon Savage’s book TEENAGE is very good on the gang culture of the 1890’s which went on to blossom during World War One. He draws a brilliant picture of the ‘hooligan gangs’. With mobs of up to 500 of them scrapping on British streets, the picture is of Brighton in the 1960’s not Victorian lace-curtain refinement. Not a bit of it: there’s the Peaky Blinders of Brum; the Forty Row and Bengal Tiger gangs of Manchester; the High Rip of Liverpool and the Monkey’s Parade and Bowry Boys of East London.

There was a sensational murder in 1892 by three members of the Lime Street gang in Manchester, who knifed a rival gang member. Fleet Street - do I need to say this - went into a tail-spin we’d recognise today.

War could only give these urges impetus. By 1915 there was an increasing lack of adult supervision. Old Bill was getting older as younger policemen joined up. There was less lighting, less parenting, even less food, which can get your gander up. And Savage draws an interesting connection between the interruption of schooling and an abnormal society with its “war-talk of craft, guile and revenge”: he points out that most xenophobic attacks were carried out by youths and women, perhaps fired up by the strangeness of their time which demanded participation.

In 17 major UK cities the number of under 16’s charged with public order offences went up by 33% in 1915 (although, Savage notes, it was 60% in Germany).

By 1916 there was a 284% rise in juvenile delinquency. By 1917 birchings were double the number administered in 1914, totalling 5210 punishments.

Some of the gangs - the Anderston Redskins in Glasgow, the Napoo in Manchester - took fashion and style from the American Red Indians, the Napoo cutting girl’s pigtail’s off, scalping-style. Could the rebellious youth have identified that America now represented the world of the frontiersman and the freebooter, whereas the Empire now required the team effort? Therefore the gangs were, in the time honoured way of youth culture, determinedly running against the swim of things in more ways than one?

By jonathanruffle, Apr 11 2013 08:27AM

I went last night to the Western Front Association meeting in Stowmarket - to meet like-minded folk obviously, but particularly to hear Chris Baker.

He’s the man behind the Long Long Trail website.

He was talking on the Portuguese contribution to the First World War, and I was struck by a number of things. First, Chris’s wisdom in taking us through some pre-war Portuguese politics which he was then neatly able to pay off during the rest of the talk. Truly, what was going on at home had a huge impact on what happened in France.

Second, be cautious with sources. How many times have I taken unit histories at face value? Chris’s mission in researching the Portuguese ‘running away’ on April 9th 1918 had turned up a quote by a very senior British officer that he had seen them falling back in confusion from a vantage point in a nearby village. On the ground, Chris discovered you can’t see the ground the Portuguese were on from anywhere in the village at all.

Third, having reinstated the Portuguese reputation, how interesting it was to hear about other allies than the usual French and Belgians. Especially as every detail of another country’s contribution requires us to think again about what ‘we’ were doing. Very useful.

Chris turned out to be a good bloke to chat to after, and if you wanted to know more about your WW1 relative he researches those for a living - he’s done 5000 already. Although if you want social, political, financial or military assistance, especially allied with a broadcaster’s sensibility, I might modestly recommend myself.

All power to the Suffolk branch of the WFA, especially Taff Gillingham (another excellent hands-on historian and great help to the media) but he’s just one of the many experts on all subjects they have there.