Much more than a good read

The Bravest Gentleman in France. A book with a twist of personal irony

The Bravest Gentleman in France. A book with a twist of personal irony

Looking for something specific on the extensive bookshelves at home can sometimes have interesting consequences. Last evening, whilst seeking an account of a visit to Stonehenge by a Victorian school party, which I had said I would lend to a historian colleague – I know I have it somewhere but it still alludes me; I found myself pleasantly diverted by other books that have lain neglected for too long.  Whilst not locating exactly what I was looking for the time spent, far from wasted proved quite fruitful.

This form of book grazing, particularly for an omnivorous reader, can provide endless hours of worthwhile distraction. Though onlookers often completely fail to see the point and have even been known to offer unhelpful advice such as “can’t you find what you are looking for on the internet?” Conveyors of such ill-chosen words have, of course, completely missed the point.

Had I not been so wholly engrossed in this deliciously relaxing pastime yesterday I would have missed an opportunity to reflect upon the poignancy of a particular book which I chanced upon, completely unrelated to Stonehenge or Victorian school trips, but in many ways not too far removed from this topic. The  book in question is a 1908 hardback illustrated edition of “The Bravest Gentleman in France: A Tale of War and Adventure in the Days of Louis XIII,” written by Herbert Hayens. I confess that I have never actually read this book, but it is nonetheless one that I treasure. I do so because of the inscription inside that reads:-

Gloucester Education Committee

Linden Road Council School

Presented to: Henry Terrett

For Efficiency and Regular Attendance during the School Year Ending October 31st 1910

School open 417 times

Attended 417

P.Barrett Cooke, Sec.

Henry Terrett was my grandfather’s elder brother, my great uncle Harry. He and my grandfather both invoke strong and fond memories from my childhood. Uncle Harry on leaving school became a wheelwright and could turn his hand to making anything in wood. A skilled craftsman who took immense pride in his work and commanded great respect because of both his aptitude and his gentle nature.

Opening the book, which then became a worthwhile focus of my attention for the next hour, this inscription caused me to pause and think, not only of my late uncle, but also about the inscription and the timing of the award. At the time of the presentation  of this school prize, Harry Terrett would have been 13 years old and about to enter his final year of formal education. I always remember him as a very clever man, he won numerous prizes for solving crossword puzzles, was always someone I went to if I was struggling with maths homework and seemed to have a marvellous memory for events, particularly those of a sporting nature. Yet I suspect the thought that he might have continued his studies beyond the age of fourteen would not have been within the purview of his parents. In those days young people from a working class background in the city of Gloucester seldom had the opportunities that those of us of later generations have enjoyed.

Reading the presentation plate at the front of the book gives an indication of why I am pleased that when my Uncle Harry died, it came into my possession. I have no intention of parting with it and hope that it will remain in the family long after I have gone. However, there was another and more disturbing thought that went through my mind as I read the inscription. The book was awarded in 1910 and just four years later Uncle Harry along with thousands of other young men from Gloucester departed for France. His first time out of the UK was to travel to the battle fields of France to fight alongside his comrades in the trenches of the First World War. Unlike so many, he came through four years of war and lived to see peace (albeit short lived), but like so many others I don’t recall that he ever spoke of the horrors that he witnessed on the muddied plains of France and Belgium.

His school prize is not the only possession of my Uncle Harry’s that I treasure. Amongst the items found in his house another book came into my hands alongside the first. This is a historical account of the 2/5th Gloucestershire Regiment with which he served in that terrible war. Inside this book I found a newspaper cutting, undated, that reports that Sergeant Harry Terrett of 2/5th Gloucesters has been awarded the D.C.M. (Distinguished Conduct Medal) for bravery in the field. In addition to this book I am humbled to now have this and his other medals in my safe keeping. Uncle Harry was clearly promoted after his deeds in the field because the account in the regimental record reads.

“A small party of B Company under Sergeant Groves reached a house near Snipers House and a platoon of D Company under Lieutenant London reached its objective: the first was overwhelmed and Sergent Groves was killed; the second, finding itself unsupported, withdrew under the cover of the mist and smoke, and on its return journey surprised a German post and brought in a machine gun and some prisoners. Lieutenant London and five of his men were wounded, but all were got safely back. One section of D company in the centre under Corporal Terrett dug in beyond the river and held its ground until night, when it was attacked and driven back. Corporal Terrett received the D.C.M. and privates Livings and Barrett were awarded the Military Medal.”

Looking at the school prize I couldn’t help but think how ironic that Uncle Harry chose a book titled “The Bravest Gentleman in France.” He could never have imagined how the next few years would shape his life and the bravery of so many who gave their lives in such a tragic war. I wonder how much different his life would have been had he been born in a different era and had the opportunity to gain an education beyond his short school years.

As I returned the book to its place on the shelf I thought – there is so much more between the pages of many of these tomes than simply pictures and words. Perhaps as we commemorate the beginning of the First World War this year I will make the effort to read “The Bravest Gentleman in France.” In so doing I will try to think of Uncle Harry and imagine him reading the book happy in the ignorance of the years immediately ahead of him.