John J Sills
First World Problems
Enlists in Marylebone,
and leaves his family for two years
Fights for his life with three million others in the cold, crowded trenches of the Somme
Creating the Centena
I feel like I’ve been researching this piece for around twenty years, since I first visited my grandad’s grave at the Somme with school. At the time I was just 14, keen on history, but not really ready to understand the sheer enormity and scale of what had taken place there. I can, however, vividly remember the absolute silence in the area as I looked at my own name staring back at me from his headstone, whilst the rest of my classmates waited on the swelteringly hot coach.
Another trip followed with school a few years later, this time with me chaperoning a younger class, and this time with a little more knowledge of the events that had taken place thanks to some GCSE coursework on Field Marshal Douglas Haig (the ‘Donkey’ who lead the ‘Lions’). However, that was the extent of my research for quite a few years, until the 100-year anniversary started looming in 2014, and with it a new-found desire to find out what I could about my namesake.
Guided by my wife who was busy compiling our family tree, we started researching the areas of London where my grandad was remembered. And it was during this research that the closeness and cross-overs in our lives were made clear. Having come from a long line of Arsenal fans, I regularly visit both Highbury and the Emirates Stadium. Little did I know that every time I walked to the stadium, I was going right past a memorial archway with his name inscribed in Manor Gardens, and another in Thornhill Road Gardens.
When the Armistice project was first announced, I was delighted to be chosen to take part, especially given that at the time of writing the piece, I would be the same age he was when he fought and died.
I returned to the Lives of the First World War website that I had shared his details on, and found some amazing evidence uploaded by the IWM. This included a document showing the exact location where his body fell (rather than just the cemetery), one with headstone inscriptions, and another with a medal card record.
I also got back in touch with the Islington Local History centre, who’d been superbly helpful a few years ago when finding the memorial locations. They were able to share more insight into impact on Islington of the war. 9,400 men (and three women) associated with Islington died on active service, with approximately 750 falling at the Somme.
The symmetry in our lives has continued, too. I’ve started working in Islington, just a few minutes’ walk from where he lived with his wife and five children. And my journey in is through Marylebone station, the same area in which he enlisted.
Of course, there’s some major differences in how we’re living, too. But the reason I can live like I do owes everything to how he bravely chose to live his.
26 is a group of writers whose purpose is to inspire a greater love of words in business and in life.