Stamford veteran to visit uncle’s grave on centenary of Battle of the Somme
An army veteran is preparing to visit his uncle’s grave for the last time – 100 years after he was killed in one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
On July 24 this year, Peter West, 83, of Exeter Gardens, Stamford, will travel with a close friend to Heilly Station Cemetery, Mericourt-l’Abbe, near Amiens, northern France.
There, in a neatly-maintained plot, lie the remains of Mr West’s uncle, Acting Bombadier Robert Gaskin of the Royal Field Artillery - alongside thousands of other victims of the Battle of the Somme.
Fought between July 1 and November 1, 1918 near the Somme River, the battle was one of the largest of the First World War and saw more than 1.5 million men lose their lives.
On the first day alone, the British suffered more than 57,000 casualties.
Mr West had always known his uncle was killed at the Somme, but it was only nine years ago - after a chance encounter with military historian Professor Richard Holmes - that he managed to locate the grave.
He said: “My mother, Hilda Gaskin, was one of 11 children of a cobbler from the Isle of Dogs.
“During the war, all five of the brothers decided to go off and fight - four came back, but Robert did not.
“I’m an ex-solider myself and regularly went across the France and Belgium for commemoriations.
“By chance during one of these visits I met Professor Holmes and explained my uncle’s story. Within hours he had helped me locate the grave.”
Every July since then, Mr West, who left the army aged 29 as a sergeant major, has visited Robert’s grave and left two small wooden crosses in his honour.
Believing that Robert had never married or had any children, Mr West was stunned to received a telephone call four years ago from a stranger.
“I answered, and a lady said ‘Are you the son of Hilda Gaskin,” said Mr West.
“I said ‘yes’, and she said ‘well then we are related’.”
It turned out that Robert’s past had been kept secret by his family who disapproved of a relationship with a servant girl.
“The family had a very successful cobblers business in Westferry Road, London. They had a big house and domestic staff.
“When Robert married a servant girl it did not sit well at all,” he added.
Robert and his wife, Annie, had a daughter called Gwendoline – mother of Frances Kibble, the woman who had called Mr West unnanounced and revealed her family connection.
Robert left home to go and fight in France on December 11, 1915. He was wounded in fierce fighting at some point between July 14 and 21, at which point he was taken to a field hospital close to the frontline.
Sadly, within days, the field hospital was shelled by enemy artillery and all inside were killed. Robert was 29-years-old.
His family were later issued with a commemorative scroll bearing the words: “He whom this scroll commemorates was numbered among those who, at the call of King and Country, left all that was dear to them endured hardnedss, faced danger, and finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty and self sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom.
“Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten.”
It is this message which Mr West, a father of three and grandfather of eight, is keen to protect.
He added: “Like almost every family at that time, we lost someone in the war.
“The Gaskin brothers signed up before conscription was brought in. They volunteered to fight and Robert paid the ultimate price.
“Kipling penned the famous phrase ‘lest we forget’ and that has always stuck with me.
“People forget just how many people fought and died during the Great War.
“I am just one generation removed from those brave men, but there are not many like me left.
“For health reasons, this year will be the last time I visit Mericourt-l’Abbe, but I will never forget and I sincerely hope others feel the same.”
Mr West enlisted with the Royal Signals at the age of 14 - the last ever person to do so - and, at the age of 19, he was put on a troop ship to Korea – a six week journey.
Around five million people died during the Korean War, and it is with sadness that Mr West believes few people are aware of the full scale of the conflict.
A job with the Royal Education Corps saw Mr West produce the daily news sheet, Korean Base Gazette.
Every day a small team would churn out 7,500 newsletters for distribution to servicemen - football scores from back home gleaned from a short wave radio being one of the most in-demand news items.
Mr West’s father, Jack Edward West, was a regimental sergeant major in the Essex Regiment. He was mentioned in despatches three times and received the Croix de Guerre.
Jack’s father, too, was a soldier and was mentioned in despatches during the Boer War.
After leaving the army Mr West, who has been married to second wife Sally for 27 years, began a successful career in insurance - starting off in London and later serving in senior roles abroad, notably Singapore.
He also spent 20 years as part-time soldier with the Honorable Artillery Company –the second most senior unit of the Territorial Army.
And in 1977 he formed the British Korean Veterans’ Association.