My uncle Fred told a story. A Royal Engineer, he was on leave in the months running up to D-Day and was met off the train at Birmingham by my grandad, Nick. Father and son headed off to a pub at the back of New Street Station. There a man in his late forties came up to my grandad: ‘I know you. Nick, is it? Third Battle of Ypres? We had a fight, remember?’ Twenty-seven years before, they had fought one another in an army boxing match while serving on the Western Front. Nicholas Lay had signed up when he was just 16 – many lied about their age – and became a light infantryman in the Ox and Bucks, surviving the Somme, Ypres and, ultimately, the Great War itself, as did the vast majority of Britain’s fighting men. The question that has always grabbed me is this: what kind of people organised a punch-up as a distraction from the horrors of Passchendaele? Not people like us.
Yet it is people like us who, on 4 August next year, will commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War and the sacrifices and achievements of such very different people, of whom there are now none left. Because they have gone, there is a greater desire