Wendy Tapper, Bridgend
It seems deeply ironic and, to many of us, achingly sad that we are willing to turn away from our European neighbours just as we commemorate the centenary of the battles of the Somme, Mametz Wood, and all our shared experience of the horrors of war. At such times I remember being told stories about my great uncle – the baby of his family, the only boy in a houseful of big sisters – who was interned in a German prisoner-of-war camp in northern France towards the end of the Great War. After the Armistice of 1918, his family waited in vain for his return and neither the British military authorities nor his old comrades could account for his disappearance. At length they, a south Wales miner’s family, wrote to the German authorities for help and got a courteous and kind response. Their boy had been one of thousands of victims of the influenza epidemic that rolled across the devastated continent and he had died in the camp.
Our great uncle remained vivid in our family memory; we have picture postcards he sent home from France and my mother, who died just a few years ago, would recall her childhood adoration of a lively and indulgent young uncle. Decades later a relative traced his grave – not in one of the great memorial sites but in the communal cemetery of a small French town. There, records show that allied soldiers of several nationalities were buried alongside German soldiers, Chinese labourers, and a solitary Russian. They had all suffered and died far from home and the people who loved them.
Now, a century after the carnage of the Somme, my family – like so many others – reflects a more peaceful Europe, a more inter-connected world. We have spun outwards from that Welsh mining village. I have French and German grandchildren and through their heritage I connect with families whose memories are of living under tyranny and foreign occupation. The stories of my new, wider family include: migration to escape poverty and discrimination; the experience of living in caves and foraging for food in Italy as one of the most terrible battles of World War II raged overhead; flight across Germany in 1945 ahead of the advancing Soviet army; and the desperate journey of ‘boat people’ from communist China. They are all our family, our people; their histories have melded with ours to become our common story.