Thursday, 1 September 2011

ONE OF THIEPVAL’S 72,194





I visit Dick Petherick, brought up in Lydford but now retired, in his house on the outskirts of Tavistock.  He is named after his uncle, R.J.Petherick, who died on the Somme in 1916.  Dick has twenty or so photographs that will help me.  R.J.Petherick’s father, Herbert, was a builder.  A square-faced man in a bowler hat, his clothes have the rough look that working men’s clothes always do have in photographs from before the age of dry cleaning, when there was only a brush to take the mud off.  This man lost his wife when the last of the children was born and a female relative, Aunt Mary, from the pool of women who always seemed to exist for such services, arrived to take charge of the family; a white-haired spinster of determined mein. 

One of R.J.Petherick’s brothers is captured in a studio portrait aged twenty-one, in a stiff collar, long jacket and jaunty cap, a posed image in the guise of a man about town, swinging a cane.  The same young man looks quite different – and more at ease -- with his sheep, sleeves rolled up and smoking a cigarette, a broad smile on his face.  There is a photograph of the Lydford football club, players in white shorts down to their knees, flanked by other men of the village, respectably dressed in their collars and ties, if not looking too comfortable in them.  Dick isn’t sure whether R.J. is in the picture.  R.J. played in it with Archie Huggins (see earlier post).  Instead, we see him as a boy, in a family group with his proud father; he wears a suit of heavy cloth, with a watch chain hanging prominently in front of his waistcoat.  In another shot, he is shown, with the others, in the vegetable garden: R.J. is the one holding the horse’s rein.  He is the oldest of the three Petherick boys.  There’s also his sister, Frances, in a white apron. 

Like Huggins, he had been a member of the Royal North Devon Hussars (a yeomanry regiment equivalent to the modern Territorial Army) but was posted into the 5th Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiemnt.  A group photograph of Dorsetshire soldiers has been made into a postcard.  ‘Dear Frances,’ reads the message, dated August 28, 1916, saying that he can be seen in the back row at the right.  ‘...It’s a bit of a mixed up lot you can see.’  He means that companies had been amalgamated to make good the losses they had suffered.  ‘Have had a fairly decent time so far, billets are better than canvas.  Shall have to leave next Sat.’  He expects the exam he is sitting on Thursday to be a ‘washout’.  Dick died on November 24, 1916, aged twenty-one.  He is one of the 72,194 British and South African soldiers whose names are emblazoned on the great Thiepval Arch, the memorial to the Missing: men whose bodies were blown to pieces in the shelling of the battlefield and never recovered for burial. 

What was the action in which he died?  I plan to find out.  Whatever the fight, it would have been hardly imaginable to the village he left.  The Great War not only took a son and brother from the Petherick family but may have imposed other sacrifices on those who stayed behind.  Frances never married, suffering the pain of a generation whose sweethearts never came home.  


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