A Good War
No parachute. Wings that snap back and fold off. You could. Freeze. Or faint. Or be shot or burned or crushed. Or fall. Lots to think on, cold hands sweating and teeth chattering, pallid and wide eyed.
Creating the Centena
On paper, Reg is simply a great uncle by marriage – his wife, Lily, the sister of my great-grandmother Geraldine. But family hearsay, and scattered but compelling circumstantial and documentary evidence, point to an affair between Mills and his own sister-in-law. It’s a relationship that spanned the years of the First World War, and lasted in some form until the conception of my grandmother in British India in 1926. She was given up for adoption, almost certainly because she was Mills’ illegitimate daughter. Which makes Reginald my great-grandfather.
Reg was born in Lincolnshire, in 1885. There’s not much evidence for what he did with himself after leaving Felsted, except for a couple of spells as an officer in the reserves. The National Archives tell us that he got his Aviators’ Certificate in 1912, the 377th person in Britain with a pilot’s licence.
My main source for his military career is rafweb.org, which gives us the bare bones. He was one of the first pilots to cross the channel in 1914 and commanded no.6 squadron at the Somme. He took a wing to Italy in 1917 when British troops went to prop up the Alpine Front. You can trace all his appointments in the London Gazette. Relevant is his first appointment in India in 1919. He retired in the 30s, but spent a couple of years as a staff officer in the Second World War.
Out of work in my early 20s, I plugged a lot of what I knew into Ancestry and forgot about it for a few years. But out of the blue, I was contacted by the granddaughter of Claude, Reg’s brother. She sent me this picture of him, taken in Lahore in 1922. He’s said to have just recovered from Typhus.
Now living in south-west London, I dug up what I could find in the National Archives – in particular the details of Reg’s divorce from Lily in the 30s. Witness testimony, probably that of a private detective, details a long series of comings and goings from Reg’s London flat late at night.
Reg immigrated to Tasmania in the 40s and never came back. After a bit of speculative Googling I found out where he was buried from the company Millingtons, which owns five large cemeteries in Hobart. They kindly sent me a picture of his headstone on which his place of birth, Spalding, is misspelt ‘Apalding’. It seems like nobody was there who knew him well enough to have it put right.
The First World War brought death, suffering and loss to millions. It defies hyperbole. But for millions more, it was a central event that brought purpose, identity and meaning to unfulfilling, unhappy lives. Reg’s private life was a disaster. He made his wife miserable and died estranged from legitimate and illegitimate children. Was the war then the ‘good part’ of his life? I’ve tried to put myself in his shoes. I can’t help but feel like he wouldn’t have missed it.
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