Medal Going Home

When I was about eleven, I was an avid collector of coins, attracted by the romance of finding Victorian pennies, halfpennies and once, a silver Edwardian shilling in my change. A fondness for money itself may also have played a part. The announcement in 1966 of plans for decimalisation injected urgency into my hobby, and when I grew old enough to do a paper round, a large part of the proceeds went towards this solitary pastime.

Occasionally I bought a copy of Coins and Medals, before moving downmarket to the livelier upstart Coin Monthly. But it was probably as a reader of the former that I casually asked my father whether he had any medals from the war.

He replied that he had not, because he had never claimed them. Probably like many others, he had regarded these baubles as a poor reward for years of putting his life at risk in the service of His Majesty. But then he thought, why not? and decided to send off for them. Of course, he still remembered his Service Number. Before long, he had received – over twenty years after the war ended – four medals: the War Medal 1939-1945, the Defence Medal, the 1939-1945 Star, and specifically for his main theatre of service, the Burma Star.

I was impressed by the speed and efficiency with which they were delivered: less so by the medals themselves. “Silver” coins minted before 1947 still consisted of 50% actual silver. But the War Medal and the Defence Medal, although silver in colour, were made of cupro-nickel. More disappointingly, they carried no identification, suggesting medals stacked up in a warehouse, waiting to be claimed. There was nothing personal about them: I could not have expressed this at the time, but I was left with the impression that the government had regarded the recipients not as individuals but as a homogeneous, expendable mass.

My mother’s parents lived with us, and after my Dad’s medals arrived, my grandfather Jack Brockbank similarly decided to see if he could still claim his medals from the Great War – by now nearly fifty years previous.

Jack at right

To his surprise, after filling in a form, they arrived. He had been awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.

I found these far more impressive. The British War Medal was struck in silver, and showed St George on horseback trampling a skull and cross-bones and a shield showing the Prussian eagle. The Victory Medal showed a winged figure of Victory, and was inscribed “The Great War For Civilisation 1914-1919”, dating the end of the war to the Treaty of Versailles. Perhaps from our perspective the Second World War more closely fits the description of a “war for civilisation”.

But it was the edge which fascinated me: both medals were inscribed “173612 DVR. J. BROCKBANK. RE.” Although the medal was still meagre recompense for the dangers he had faced, it was at least personal – something the recipient could be proud to own.

Relatively few of the British War Medals survive: when the Hunt brothers attempted to corner the silver market in 1979, the silver price went up eightfold, and their bullion value far exceeded their market value as medals: as a result, many were melted down.

In the 1920s the British War Medal and Victory Medal acquired the nickname Mutt and Jeff when worn together, inspired by the US newspaper comic strip. When accompanied by other commonly awarded medal, the 1914–15 Star (or the 1914 Star), the set of three were humorously known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, after three popular comic strip characters, a dog, a penguin and a rabbit.

My father and grandfather allowed me to be custodian of their medals, but as a collector, I didn’t want to leave it there. Some time around 1970 I bought a few of the other WW2 medals, where they were affordable from paper round pay.

I also acquired a 1914-15 Star, the one which Jack had not received. I noticed that it had an inscription on the back, but I didn’t pay it much attention, and my small medal collection spent half a century largely undisturbed on my bookshelf in its Coinval album. Just occasionally I’d glance at them, and feel gratitude, with a flicker of peacetime boomer guilt, that I’d never been called upon to fight in a war, as my grandfather and father were.

2022 began with a flurry of renewed work on my family tree, as the 1921 Census emerged. In the course of my researches, I read about a Facebook page called Medals Going Home, run by postman and genealogist Adam Simpson-York. He acquires named WW1 medals and other identifiable memorabilia on eBay, and reunites them with descendants or other family members. To do this he uses Ancestry.com to follow the family down to the present, and social media such as Facebook to locate living family members to receive the medal. His randomly scattered acts of altruism have been featured on the BBC’s One Show.

What a marvellous idea! To track down a missing medal belonging to a particular serviceman or woman is virtually impossible. But going the other way, pushing rather than pulling, as it were – starting from a named medal including a Service Number (especially one with a less common surname) – it is frequently possible to find their grandchildren, or great-nieces and great-nephews etc. And a medal which has been lost, forgotten, sold, stolen or cleared out of a house at some point over the last hundred years can again find a home where it is valued.

I remembered the 1914-15 Star I had bought, and went to look at it for the first time in years: it would mean so much more to the recipient’s family than to me.

225291. W. B. BOAST. A.B. R.N.

Using the Ancestry website I started building W. B. Boast’s family tree. I soon established that his full name was William Benjamin Boast, born in Lambeth, London in 1887. He got through the war, married and had a couple of children, and lived until 1956 – so there could be some living descendants.

I also found his naval record, which tells us that he joined the Navy in 1903 when he was 16 years old, and lists the ships he crewed. The record also tells us that he was 5 foot 6, with auburn hair, hazel eyes and a fresh complexion, that he had a scar on his lower lip, two scars on his right hand, and tattoos of a girl’s head in a star on his right arm, and a sword on his left arm. It shows his progress from Boy, 2nd Class to Able Seaman in three years.

He served on HMS Malaya from January 1916 to April 1919, fighting at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916. The Malaya was hit eight times and took major damage as it was last in line of the squadron of fast battleships which had to turn right round, one after the other, in the face of the full German line. A total of 65 men died in the battle, or later of their injuries, and the Malaya got home with a serious list.

W.B. Boast was invalided out in 1919 following the amputation of the third finger of his right hand. Back in civilian life in 1921, he worked as an electrical fitter in Willesden, London, and was still doing so in 1939.

But I was no nearer to finding the next generation down after his daughter and son. So I enlisted Adam’s help at Medals Going Home. Within 48 hours, he emailed me to say that he had found Able Seaman Boast’s granddaughter: he included her telephone number and said she would be expecting my call.

I called her, a lovely lady living in Great Yarmouth. She was only three when her grandfather died, so she didn’t remember him, but she knew that he had served in the Navy, and was very pleased to know that the medal would be on its way to her house. And that, I think, is where it belongs.

Blackadder Goes Forth – “Goodbyeee” – Television’s finest half hour?

Being in period, the Blackadder series – like Dad’s Army – has aged much better than sitcoms with a contemporary setting. Only its technical quality and modest production values show its age: in my view the script and acting quality have never been bettered.

The creativity of the cast of the final series, Blackadder Goes Forth, caused friction in production. Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were already established comedians in their own right, accustomed to writing comedy as well as performing it: they could hardly be expected to act their parts without suggesting improvements. Co-writer Ben Elton said that by opening it up, they allowed the cast to question every aspect of the script. This collaborative process achieved outstanding results, but the other writer, Richard Curtis clearly found it frustrating, telling The Times in 1989:

“Everybody on the show thinks they can put in good jokes, despite the fact that Ben Elton and I think there are already quite a few good ones in there to start with. It does usually end up funnier, but it’s time to do something over which I have more control.”

And in the 2008 documentary Blackadder Rides Again, Curtis recalled:

“They would literally sit around for the entire time discussing the script… sometimes we would just say to them ‘if you stood up and tried to act this script out, you would find out things about it.'”

Some historians have criticised it for presenting a critical view of the war, reinforcing the popular perception of “lions led by donkeys” – although as all the main characters, Blackadder excepted, are portrayed as idiots, the narrative is surely closer to “donkeys led by donkeys”. Broadcaster and historian Max Hastings has called the common British view of the war “the Blackadder take on history”, while military historian Richard Holmes wrote in his book The Western Front: “Blackadder’s aphorisms have become fact… A well-turned line of script can sometimes carry more weight than all the scholarly footnotes in the world.”

And when Blackadder Goes Forth was broadcast in 1989, some felt that it trivialised World War 1 by turning it into comedy. But the sixth and final episode in the series, Goodbyeee, aired shortly before Remembrance Sunday, emphatically answered those critics. The very first line hints that events are taking a darker turn, as Blackadder takes a phone call:

“Ah, Captain Darling. Tomorrow at dawn. Oh, excellent. See you later, then. Bye.”

There is still room for comedy. When George argues that the war has been worth it, Blackadder responds:

“How could it possibly be worth it? We’ve been sitting here since Christmas 1914, during which millions of men have died, and we’ve advanced no further than an asthmatic ant with some heavy shopping.”

The humour acquires a poignant edge, as George realises he is the last survivor of the Cambridge Tiddlywinkers:

George: Well, er, Jacko and the Badger bought it at the first Ypres front, unfortunately — quite a shock, that. I remember Bumfluff’s house-master wrote and told me that Sticky had been out for a duck, and the Gubber had snitched a parcel sausage-end and gone goose over-stump frogside.

Blackadder: Meaning…?

George: I don’t know, sir, but I read in the Times that they’d both been killed.

Blackadder makes an attempt to feign insanity, sporting underpants on his head and a pencil up each nostril, and saying “Wibble”. He promptly backs down when he overhears General Melchett approaching with the words:

Is this genuinely mad? Or has he simply put his underpants on his head and stuffed a couple of pencils up his nose? That’s what they all used to do in
the Sudan. I remember I once had to shoot a whole platoon for trying that.

Blackadder offers an analysis of the causes of the war:

Blackadder: You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the
Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other’s deterrent. That way there could never be a war.

Baldrick: But this is a sort of a war, isn’t it, sir?

Blackadder: Yes, that’s right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.

George: What was that, sir?

Blackadder: It was bollocks.

Baldrick, saddened at the animal friends he has lost, gives a plain and heartfelt speech against the war – the simplest of soldiers has worked out that it is a pointless waste of lives:

Baldrick: Why can’t we just stop, sir? Why can’t we just say, “No more killing, let’s all go home”? Why would it be stupid just to pack it in, sir, why?

George: Now, now, now, look here, you just stop that talk right now, Private. It’s, it’s absurd, it’s Bolshevism, and it wouldn’t work anyway.

Baldrick: Why not, sir?

George: “Why not?” Well, what do you mean? “Why wouldn’t it work?” It–
It wouldn’t work, Private…It wouldn’t work because, there, well, now, you just get on with polishing those boots, all right?

We see Blackadder following this exchange closely. He clearly thinks Baldrick has a point. And the comedy gets suddenly darker in the next scene, where General Melchett hands Captain Darling his commission, meaning that he must join the others going “over the top” at dawn.

Tim McInnerny as Captain Darling

Darling is the pivot on which the episode turns from comedy to tragedy. Up to this point in the series, he has been Blackadder’s enemy, the subject of contempt – a sycophantic bureaucrat, keeping a safe distance behind the front line. But we feel his fear intensely as we see him literally pleading for his life, while Melchett – inadvertently or wilfully – misinterprets his protests:

Darling: No, sir…You’re, you’re not listening, sir. I’m begging you, please — for the sake of all the times I’ve helped you with your dicky bows and dicky bladder – please don’t make me…

Melchett: …make you go through the farewell debagging ceremony in the mess? Heh! No, I’ve spared you that, too, you touchingly sentimental young
booby! Look: no fuss, no bother – the driver is already here.

Darling has been painted as a coward, but we understand his terror at this sudden turn of events. The nightmare mood of this scene is underlined by Melchett’s unsettling moustache net, and by the dramatic lighting portraying the arriving driver as a figure of doom.

Back in the trench, as the time to go over the top approaches, fear starts to take hold, even in the breezy and mindlessly patriotic George, and the simple Baldrick:

George: Sir?

Blackadder: Yes, Lieutenant?

George: I’m scared, sir.

Baldrick: I’m scared too, sir.

George: I mean, I’m the last of the tiddlywinking leapfroggers from the golden summer of 1914. I don’t want to die. I’m really not overkeen on dying
at all, sir.

As we enter the final sequence, the most moving speech is left to Captain Darling, on his arrival in the trench, when Blackadder asks him how he is feeling:

Erm, not all that good, Blackadder — rather hoped I’d get through the whole show; go back to work at Pratt & Sons; keep wicket for the Croydon gentlemen; marry Doris… Made a note in my diary on my way here. Simply says, “Bugger.”

Blackadder resists the temptation to mock or gloat over Darling, simply replying “Well, quite”. The adversaries are reconciled by fear. And in this moment, we are all Darling. Dislikeable though he is, we cannot but feel his tragedy: why should he be denied this modest, contented future?

As they wait in the trench to go over the top, they notice that the British guns have stopped firing, Darling concludes that the war is over: “Thank God! We lived through it! The Great War – 1914-1917.” (by now this dark joke might now require an explanatory caption: “The war did not end until 1918”). Blackadder has to point out to the men that the guns have only been silenced so they can make their attack.

We hear the chilling anonymous order: “On the signal, company will advance!” Blackadder’s final piece of caustic wit is aimed not at Baldrick, George or Darling, but at the war itself. There is no time to listen to Baldrick’s cunning plan:

Well, I’m afraid it’ll have to wait. Whatever it was, I’m sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?

When Blackadder says “Good luck, everyone” before blowing his whistle for the advance, he is sincere. We’re not laughing any more.

In the famous final scene we see all the main characters (except General Melchett) running into action with explosions around them. The scene is shown in slow motion, accompanied by a haunting, echoing piano slowly playing the Blackadder theme. It then fades into a tranquil poppy field, leaving us to draw our conclusions about their fate. Following the laughter that has gone before, this is devastating.

It was not written that way. The final scene had been hastily filmed on an unconvincing polystyrene set: furthermore the cast members, having once clambered through the obstructions, smoke and explosions in the dark, feared injury and refused to do another take. The resulting amateurish footage undermined the intended poignancy of the scene, so in editing, the episode’s director Richard Boden had the idea of using slow motion and fading into the poppy field with the sound of birdsong. The end credits were omitted.

During the filming of the episode, Rowan Atkinson described sharing his character’s dread of impending death and feeling a “knot in the pit of my stomach”, something he had not experienced before. By the end, we each have that knot in our stomach. To my mind, this is the finest half hour of television ever made.

And yes, I do mean better than the one with Del Boy falling through the bar.