We have a rolling pin with a history. Knowing this history makes a difference.
It is old. It was owned by my great grandmother, a woman called Lizzie, who had been born in 1862 in Droitwich, Worcestershire, into a large working-class family that was large enough for her to have been the illegitimate daughter of her oldest “sister” and yet for no-one to have noticed.
Like innumerable other daughters of the poor, she went into service, and, while working in Nottingham, married a carpenter. They had several children, one of whom was my grandfather. Another son, and therefore my great uncle, was Charley, a mischievous boy who pushed pebbles into the handle holes of the said rolling pin. The stones were weged in so tightly that they couldn’t be removed, and they are still there today.
Family history does not record his punishment.
He is also well-known in the family for having been born at the wrong time. He was born in 1897.
This made him 17 when war broke out in 1914, and you can’t be more unlucky than that.
Charley probably didn’t think he was unlucky. He was, after all, the kind of boy who pushed stones into his mother’s rolling pin! He wasn’t enlisted. He volunteered in 1914 at the Drill Hall on Derby Road in Nottingham. The unit he joined was the Robin Hood battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, and in late February 1915they landed in France, full of patriotic excitement.
In that October, he saw action at the Hohenzollern Redoubt, and the shine started to wear off the experience of war. The fighting lasted for nine months and the ground was taken and lost many times. Both sides used tunnelling to explode huge mines under their opponents, so the troops became traumatized by the fear of sudden detonations under their feet.#
Then, in May 1916, they were moved up to the line on the Somme.
This morning as I write this post, on 1st July 2016, the church bell in the village is tolling. It has been tolling since 7.30, for that was the time, exactly one hundred years ago, that the whistles were blown in the British trenches to signal the start of the offensive that became known as the Battle of the Somme, and this has made me think of Charley.
The 1st of July 1916 dawned beautifully. A bright, warm summer’s day, 72 degrees Fahrenheit, with a clear, blue sky. Visibility was excellent, a fact that would have worried Charley and his comrades
and it would have added to the tension in the trenches. At 7.27 a.m. the Sherwood Foresters began discharging smoke into no-man’s-land to give their advance an element of concealment.
The Robin Hood battalion would attack first, and other Sherwood Forester battalions would support their advance. This part of the battle would come to be known as the assault on the Gononcourt Salient.
Casualties were incurred almost immediately the men rose from the trenches as German machine guns opened up. The gaps in the British barbed wire were insufficiently wide forcing the men to huddle together unnecessarily in certain areas as they funnelled through. Naturally these gaps were quickly under intense enemy machine gun fire.
Charley was hit in the arm and thigh by machine gunfire as he stepped over the bodies of his friends. He was fortunate to be brought back to the British trenches.
Only 5 soldiers in the first wave survived the first attack. Within an hour the attack had ground to a halt, and after two hours the attack was abandoned.
The battalion was withdrawn and rebuilt after this day. It had lost more than half its men and its commanding officer in one day.
The assault on the Gonnecourt salient was a diversionary action, designed to draw German soldiers away from the main battle to the south.
Charley’s wound became gangrenous, so he was brought back to Royd Hall Military Hospital in Longwood, Huddersfield, Yorkshire, where he died of septic TB and pneumonia.
And that is why I love our rolling pin!