The final resting place of a hero

IT all began with a reader sending me a relative’s medal commemorating a military campaign in 1902, but escalated into the story of a recent poignant visit to a 1914-18 war grave in Belgium that no member of the family had ever seen despite the passage of nearly a century.

That reader was Kenneth Albrow, a 68-year-old West Caister resident; the soldier was his wife’s grandfather, Percy Pooley, strongly believed by the family to be one of the Norfolk Volunteers who fought in the Boer Wars in South Africa from 1899 to 1902 but returned home safely to resume civilian life.

Their reason for thinking that Percy Pooley was a Boer Wars veteran is because they have a keep-sake that was given to all Yarmouthians who survived the Transvaal hostilities. When the survivors returned home, all were given not only a heartfelt civic welcome but also a personal gift for each man from the mayor, Col Diver.

Each soldier was presented with a hall-marked silver medal with the borough coat-of-arms in colour and motto on the front and, on the back, “Home Again. May 1902. From Col Diver, Mayor”.

Mr Albrow told me: “When my mother-in-law died, we had a load of stuff that belonged to her. Among it we found this little wooden box of trinkets and other bits and pieces, including this silver medal on a chain.”

Assuming Percy Pooley fought in the Boer War 5000 miles from home, he put on military uniform again a dozen years later when Europe was gripped by another bloody conflict, the enemy this time being Germany. He was promoted to corporal in the Royal Fusiliers and, inevitably, was posted to the near Continent; in 1917 he became one of the hundreds of thousands of casualties sustained during the infamous battles at Ypres in Belgium.

His widow remarried when their children had grown up..

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This summer Kenneth Albrow, his wife Freda, their son and daughter-in-law Paul and Caroline, and Freda’s sister and brother-in-law, Myrna and Derek Smith, who now live in Yorkshire, decided to seek out Percy Pooley’s final resting place in Belgium, having researched its whereabouts in advance.

“It was uncanny, because we arrived there on June 7 – and by coincidence, it was the exact date on which Percy Pooley was killed 95 years earlier! We hadn’t planned it like that,” says Kenneth.

Apparently the Ypres cemetery situation had proved confusing because after the dead soldiers had been interred, the Germans launched a counter-attack, recapturing the land that had become a military cemetery. During the offensive, as the enemy advanced back into areas they had held before being driven out, German shells rained down on the cemetery, blowing up graves.

When the Allies drove the Germans back again, those charged with the task of reinterring the bodies found it well-nigh impossible to be sure of specific identities or if invididual bodies had been reassembled properly in their plots. Nearby is the Menin Gate, one of the most famous war memorials in Europe, dedicated to all those many victims who are formally listed as having no known resting place.

The headstone is in front of a low wall beyond which is a road. I am sure the visiting family found it hard to believe that the tranquil area had been a such a bloody battlefield between 1914 and 1918 where thousands of brave tommies were slaughtered.

It did not detract from the solemnity of the occasion, and Mr Albrow says all the family party of six found the visit and the experience both moving and rewarding. In particular they noted that The Last Post is still played every night by a bugler at the Menin Gate although many a decade has passed since the 1914-18 war.

Kenneth Albrow was in the building trade hereabouts for half a century, 48 of those years with leading Norfolk company R G Carter. A carpenter by trade, he was site manager for Carters, and was one of those involved in building the Tower Ballroom and complex on Great Yarmouth’s Golden Mile in the Sixties – a site formerly occupied by coastguard headquarters and cottages.

Derek Smith taught at the Hospital School in Yarmouth before moving north to Yorkshire.