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The pity of war that weaves its thread through us all

George Richard Bostock Mazengarb, my Great Uncle, was killed aged 20 at the Somme (Delville Wood/Longueval) on 27 July 1916. My grandmother was just 18 at the time and she never forgot the impact on the family of the news of his death, delivered to the house by telegram. It was some months later that they received news about how he died and reading the two sources below, it’s not difficult to see how this young man’s experience is mirrored in the sentiment of Wilfred Owen’s poem Anthem for Doomed Youth. His body was never recovered and he has his name carved into stone at the memorial site at Thiepval.

This is the entry in the war diaries of the First East Surrey Regiment dated Saturday July 29 1916 (Catalogue ref WO/95/1579):

“Heavy shelling by both sides, the enemy’s barrage through LONGUEVAL made communication well nigh impossible. Many wounded of several days duration are occupying shell holes in and around the village. It is impossible to get them away or even to provide them with the water, which they cry for as one passes. Water is a great difficulty. Many attempts were made to get water up through the barrage but much more was actually required than received. About 2pm orders to attack two enemy posts NW of LONGUEVAL received. Attack carried out at 3.30pm by nos 2 and 4-6 Coys, no 2 Coy on the right. A previous bombardment by our heavies was to have put out of action the enemy machine guns in the posts. This however was not apparently accomplished as our attack was met by heavy MG fire and the few who got forward so pluckily were unable to push forward or backward from the indifferent cover they reached and finally had to withdraw to their original positions after dark. Our losses were heavy, from 12 noon on the 27th inst to 12 noon the 29th we lost 12 officers and 308 OR. In addition to the names already mentioned, we must add those of Lieut N M VERNHAM, Lieut G R MAZENGARB, Lieut J K MILLAR, Lieut L F GRIGG killed, Capt T S KING, Lieut E D FITZGERALD wounded and Lieut G H W CLAY missing. The list of the O Ranks who fell between these dates containing the names of many old stagers who will be hard to replace.”

After the war in 1923, my grandmother, Gladys Mazengarb married Herbert Anthony Lockett OBE MBE, a stockbroker, who died suddenly in January 1929 from pneumonia as a result of weakened lungs, caused by inhaling gas on the battlefields of WW1. My father Michael was 3 at the time, his sister Nancy was 2 and my grandmother was expecting twins. David and Gillian were born in May later that year and never knew their father. In 1929, my grandmother just had to get on with it; she was 32, a mother of 4, trained teacher, scratch golfer, apparently had a lovely contralto voice and the proud driver of a motor car. She was also grieving for my grandfather and working out how she was going to manage. She never remarried: educating her 4 children and keeping them safe was her priority.

Like many of my grandmother’s generation, she lived through two world wars and she did all she could to keep her own children out of WW2. The twins and Nancy were too young to have an active involvement as they were still at school but my father’s plans to train as a naval officer were quashed when she somehow managed to retract his application. However, this had an unintended consequence which resulted in him receiving call-up papers to report for duty as a Bevin Boy. By October 1943 Britain was becoming desperate for a continued supply of coal, both for the industrial war effort and for keeping homes warm throughout the winter. Lloyd-George, then Minister of Fuel and Power and Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour and National Service, hatched a plan whereby from 1943 to 1945 one in ten of young men called up was sent to work in the mines to replace the miners who had left to fight. My father, Michael Anthony Richard Lockett, was one of them.

Thankfully, I have not known war but I have worked on several Thames Television broadcast documentary series about war and have heard first hand from interviewees very personal stories about their memories of war during WW2 and The Korean War. I also spent 10 years at The Post Office Film and Video Unit, the seat of the old GPO Film Unit, making films and with responsibility for the film archive, including films to support the war effort during the early years of WW2. In 1933, 29 years before he finished the War Requiem, Benjamin Britten worked at the GPO film unit where he composed music for the short films and supervised the sound effects. The nine films he worked on are wonderfully made and fascinating historical documents, covering a range of subjects from postage stamps to pacifism and include Night Mail, a collaboration with WH Auden and John Grierson, where Britten used orchestra, chorus, and natural sound cut rhythmically with the images. Music historians suggest that the quick turnaround time required in these short films helped Britten refine and nurture his compositional tools and how some of his very first commissions were to leave a powerful impression on his future creative life.

When we take our seats on the stage at Cadogan Hall to perform Britten’s War Requiem on the eve of Remembrance Sunday and the centenary marking the end of WW1, I shall be thinking of my Great Uncle and all those affected by the conflict. I shall also be thinking of my grandmother, who lost her brother, friends and husband and lived through the trauma of two world wars.

Photo taken from the The Penge and Anerley Press 12 August 1916

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