Friday, 24 September 2021

18 years paying tribute to war dead not knowing one was related

EACH Remembrance Day for the past 18 years, Brian Hughes has stood opposite Henley town hall in his role as

EACH Remembrance Day for the past 18 years, Brian Hughes has stood opposite Henley town hall in his role as the Royal British Legion standard bearer.

He has always looked at the names inscribed on the war memorial without knowing that he was related to one of them.

That was until last week when he found that Private Edward Hughes, who died in the First World War, was his great uncle.

Mr Hughes, 81, of Harpsden Road, Henley, said: “It was overwhelming when I found out that I had that connection. I did get rather emotional.”

He had noticed there were three soldiers named Hughes on the memorial and admitted that he had often wondered if any of them were related to him.

“I haven’t got access to resources so hadn’t pursued it,” he said.

The discovery was made by amateur historian Mike Willoughby, who organised the recent Lest We Forget exhibition on the First World War at Holy Trinity Church.

Mr Willoughby, from Woodcote, has discovered the names of more than 70 “forgotten” soldiers from the Henley area who died as a result of the war but whose names are not recorded on any of the town’s memorials.

Mr Hughes, who did National Service in the Fifties, told him that he didn’t know of any relatives who had fought in the Great War, so Mr Willoughby decided to research his family history.

He found out that Pte Hughes served in the Durham Infantry 20th Batallion. He was one of eight siblings and, like his great nephew, had lived in Harpsden Road.

He was killed in action on July 31, 1917 during the Battle of Pilkem Bridge, east of Ypres in Belgium, aged 35.

Mr Hughes, a retired electrician, said: “All I knew is that there were three Hughes’ on the town hall memorial but little did I know that one was my relative. I didn’t know much about my ily tree and in those days they never used to speak about what they had done.

“I suppose a lot of people were in the same boat because they just didn’t talk about it, which is a shame really because it’s history down the pan.

“When Mike told me it was really touching. I’ve paraded there 19 times and all that time I’ve been in front of the names but I didn’t know. I really can’t take it in that he was so close to where I am now.”

Pte Hughes’ name is also among the 58,000 on the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres which his descendant has visited five times in his role with the Legion.

Mr Hughes, who is married with two children and three grandchildren, served in both the Royal Army Service Corps and Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers during his National Service.

He was posted to the Suez Canal from 1950 to 1952 in the build-up to the 1956 crisis before serving in the army first reserve.

His father William Thomas was one of the 338,000 soldiers to be rescued from Dunkirk in 1940 while his uncle, also called Edward, was in the RAF during the Second World War.

Mr Hughes has attended repatriation ceremonies at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford and admits he often gets emotional.

“It really gets to you,” he said. “I’ve been there when they bring eight coffins and by the last one I can feel tears running down my cheeks.

“When the coffins go by I think that for the grace of God that could have been me. If you serve in the military there’s a definite bond and you feel for other servicemen.”

At next year’s Remembrance Day, which will mark the centenary of the start of the Great War, Mr Hughes will be thinking about his great uncle Edward.

He said: “I will be able to look at that name on the memorial and know it’s a relation.”

Mr Willoughby, 66, used parish records to trace Mr Hughes’ family tree.

He said: “For someone to be able to do something for Brian after he’s spent all these years doing things for the soldiers was a privilege.

“It epitomises what the Lest We Forget project is about, which is finding out which mother’s son they were. It sounds corny but I think Brian and I were destined to meet.”

The Lest We Forget project is facilitating three new memorials that will include the existing and missing names.

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