Writing about the soldiers in the family history is easy; war diaries and battle histories conjure the imagination with images of heroism and sacrifice. But what of the other side of war; the women who were left behind as the troop ships sailed?
Mary Ann Edwards was my maternal Great Grandmother. Mary was an East Harling girl, born on February 10th 1867, and baptised there on 31st March.
On October 11th 1888 she married my Great Grandfather, Harry Crook. Mary was 21, and Harry, also from a Harling family (but allegedly born in Marylebone, London) was seven years older. I’ve always been given the impression that Harry was a bit of a lad, but however you look at him or their marriage, he did the decent thing because two months after their wedding, their first child, Edward, was born on Christmas Eve.
They would go on to have 11 children between then and 1910 when their youngest child Frank (my grandfather) was born. That’s not remarkable for the time, but considering the war that would come in 1914, Mary’s story would stand out against the ordinary. Of eleven children, there would be eight boys and three girls. Of the eleven all made it to adulthood other than a son, Walter, who died as an infant in 1894. Sadly, I have no pictures of Harry, Sidney or Herbert.
Her children were as follows:
Edward born 1888
Harry born 1890
Sidney born 1892
Walter born 1894 (died in infancy)
Edna born 1896
Walter born 1898
Herbert born 1901
Frederick born 1902
Violet born 1904
Irene born 1907
Frank born 1910
The picture below was probably taken around 1920 at the family home at Overa Cottages at Eccles, when my grandfather Frank was aged around 10 years old. Due to the age difference, we don’t know whether he knew his older brothers Harry and Sidney, other than on brief periods of leave from the war when he was a small boy. By the time he was born Sidney was already in Saskatchewan, and Harry was in the Army in India. Harry left in 1913 to seek a new life following Sid, and by the time of this picture, Fred was also off to Canada to support Harry after Sid’s death.
Harry had joined the army by 1907 and was with the Royal Garrison Artillery in India. By 1910 Sidney had emigrated to Saskatchewan, Harry following three years later. At the outbreak of war in 1914, Harry and Sidney enlisted in the Canadian army and came back to Europe to fight. To see the following chronology from Mary’s perspective is shocking:
March 1915 Harry is shot and wounded near Ypres but recovers quickly.
Early 1916, Walter enlists in the Lincolnshire Regiment but is under age to fight.
June 7th 1916 Sidney is killed near Ypres.
August 11th 1916, Walter is discharged from the army to the reserve, before he goes to the front, after Mary informs them he is under age, terrified of losing another son. Once of age, Walter would re-enlist with the 14th Highland Light Infantry and go to war.
On 31st October 1917, Harry was seriously wounded at Passchendaele. He would survive, more by luck than anything. By 1919, Herbert enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps. During the summer of 1920 he was caught up in the revolution in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and by 22nd August he was dead, believed from disease in a prison camp.
Two sons dead, and another grievously injured, Harry would return to Canada and be joined by his younger brother Frederick; so in effect Mary had lost two sons to the war and two to the other side of the world.
On 13th October 1922, Mary died aged 55. My mother tells me Mary died of a broken heart. There are tales of Harry and Sidney calling in on leave while in Europe, but it’s not known if she ever saw Harry or Frederick again once they’d left for Saskatchewan. Letters to home from Harry in 1963 suggested he was last in England in July 1917. Sidney was buried in Belgium, and young Herbert has no known grave other than a mention on the Basra Memorial in Iraq, so Mary had many goodbyes.
As a postscript, my grandfather Frank joined Royal Artillery in the Second World War as a driver. He was seriously injured in 1944 as a result of an accident and died in 1952 of his injuries.
So of the eight Crook boys, three would be taken by war. As surely as they died as a result of conflict, Mary too was a victim, yet there is no memorial to her and all the mothers like her who paid such a terrible price.
A final word goes to my great grandfather Harry Crook. When he died in 1933, he was given a grand send off by the Royal British Legion. His funeral was attended by Lord and Lady Bury of Quidenham Hall. His obituary has a reference to his military service, of which I was unaware, and know nothing, but that’s a project for another day.