From Andrewes with an Extra E

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My grandfather was Francis Edward Andrewes, born 1878 in Southwater, Horsham, Surrey. Francis Edward was a military man. In 1898 he was transferred to the Royal Artillery from Suffolk Artillery, just in time to serve in the Boer War (1899-1902) through which South Africa became incorporated into the British Empire.


In 1905 (the year before my father was born), he married Margaret Agnes Malden born 1885 in India, where her father was Canon of Madras (today Chennai) Cathedral. After the wedding, the couple returned to Britain, where Francis Edward was now serving in the Royal Garrison Artillery, a division of the Royal Artillery, which developed from fortress-based artillery located on British coasts, which explains why my father’s birthplace was in Sheppey on the Kent coast and why the census of 1911 finds Francis living in Pembrokeshire on the Welsh coast, as an army captain.


He would rise to be a Lieutenant Colonel in the course of World War I. (The rank of lieutenant colonel is above a major and below a colonel, but often shortened to simply ‘colonel’ in conversation and in unofficial correspondence. I learn.) From 1914 the Royal Garrison Artillery grew to become a very large component of the British forces, armed with heavy, large calibre guns and howitzers, as a whole new form of artillery developed to meet the trench warfare conditions of the Western Front. Military historian John Terraine tells us ‘The war of 1914-18 was an artillery war: artillery was the battle-winner, artillery was what caused the greatest loss of life, the most dreadful wounds, and the deepest fear’.


This newly developed heavy artillery would be positioned some way behind the front line and had immense destructive power. To win the war, the British side had to learn to be better than the enemy at locating the enemy guns, putting them out of action so that their infantry, tanks and cavalry could advance at much reduced risk. Conversely, of course, this made the Royal Garrison Artillery a prime target for those ‘enemy guns’.


It was in his role as officer in the Royal Garrison Artillery that my granddad did his bit to win the First World War. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Order ‘for distinguished services during active operations against the enemy’ at the Battle of Passchendaele, the Third Battle of Ypres, which was waged over three horrendous months in the second half of 1917. Our side, the Allies, advanced barely five miles in that time at a total cost of nearly 600,000 casualties on both sides. ‘So it goes.’


The battle of Passchendaele was undoubtedly a hell for the likes of the dead soldier narrator that we meet in Siegfried Sassoon’s bitterly angry poem Memorial Tablet, but unlike Sassoon’s reluctant foot soldier my grandfather was a professional, an officer, and not ‘nagged and bullied’ by the squire into going to fight. If the battle was a hell for my grandfather, it was not quite the same hell as it was for those serving in the trenches and drowning in the ‘bottomless mud’ into which Sassoon’s unnamed infantryman fell, and died.


Indeed, my grandfather played a major part in converting the fields of Passchendaele into the quagmire it so famously was. In his wisdom, British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, already known as ‘the Butcher of the Somme’, had prepared the way for the third battle of Ypres with artillery barrages that devastated the entire terrain that was going to be fought over, along with its drainage, though unfortunately leaving most German defences intact. The result of this shelling by, among other units, the Royal Garrison Artillery, was the morass that led to soldiers, horses, pack mules, guns, tanks and all other imaginable military resources sinking deep into the mud.


However, the artillery, it is said, did serve the purpose of tying up an important part of the German army and I suppose this was part of the greater design, for which the 600,000 deaths can be counted as tragic but barely avoidable collateral damage, and for which my grandfather got his distinguished service award. The madness and mayhem of Passchendaele provided presumably one of ‘the hard-learned lessons’ mentioned in, lessons which were paid for first and foremost by the foot soldier depicted in Siegfried Sassoon’s great anti-war poem, and not by the likes of my artilleryman grandfather.


The Boer War and the First World War in which Francis Edward earned his honours were nasty vicious quarrels between sundry imperialist powers that, as usual, little people had to fight and pay and suffer for. British military interventions in these squabbles that bring on blind tub-thumping chauvinism in broad sections of the population disgust me. Sorry, granddad, I cannot be in awe of your heroics.


What is tragic about grandfather Francis’s fate, though, is the fact that he survived wars and active combat only to succumb, as did his wife Margaret, to the post-WWI flu epidemic; but not to the more deadly second wave of 1918, or even the milder 1919 wave, but to the fourth and final wave at the beginning of 1920. He almost slipped through to reach a deserved ripe old age, but not quite. Francis died on 29 March 1920, his life cut short just six days after Margaret’s. He was 41 and she was 34.


It is a much observed and unusual characteristic of this pandemic that it didn’t carry off primarily the very young and old, the weak and the least healthy, as influenza generally tended to do. It was young healthy adults in Francis’ and Margaret’s age range who succumbed, usually from secondary bacterial infections, especially pneumonia. This seems to be because the virus that the generation born after about 1880 were exposed to, the H3N8 virus, happened to be very different from this one, which was H1N1, and so they had less built-in, ‘herd’, immunity. Unlike people in the older or younger age range who were more immune to this particular strain.


So, after dodging death in spite of intense involvement in the imperialist wars of the start of the century and surviving the most virulent of the pandemic waves, Francis, along with his wife Margaret, died just as one might have thought they were reaching the all-clear. They left my father an orphan at the age of 14, along with his sister, Margaret, who would have been ten, and at least one more younger brother.


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GRANADA 16/05/2020