Last night I watched the service from Westminster Abbey marking the start of the First World War, and I remembered. I remembered my great grandfather, James Henry Hudspeth who died in 1915, and I remembered the reasons why his name should not be forgotten.
His name is not on any war memorial as far as I know. I have no idea why not, but perhaps the parish where he lived, Crook in County Durham, required people to have been born there in order to be included. And perhaps people in the parish where he had been born, in nearby Cornsay, didn’t know to include him on theirs.
There are no pictures of him. My great grandmother remarried and family lore has it that her new husband, who had also fought in the war, had a violent temper and destroyed all the family photographs. I now know that he actually suffered from what was then called shell shock and was hospitalised for much of the rest of his life, probably unable to control his rage.
There are no stories about my great grandfather, nothing handed down from generation to generation. We do not know if he liked football, or a pint, or growing leeks, but all are probably true for a County Durham lad born in the later part of the nineteenth century. The war left scars which never healed and it wounded more than those who volunteered or were called up to fight and the family did not stay together for long after his death. My grandad, born a matter of weeks after his father died, was sent as a toddler to live with his eldest sister. Whatever the four surviving siblings did know about their father was never ever talked about.
So what do I know? He had six children, five daughters and one son. Two of his daughters died very young, one aged three and the other aged just one. He was a miner. He joined up at Crook, initially joining the East Yorkshire Regiment, on 11 November 1914. He was posted on 13 November 1914 and was discharged on 26 January having served only 76 days, with the reason given that he was ‘not likely to become an efficient soldier’. He was of ‘good character’. He had brown hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion. He was only 5ft 4ins tall and weighed 126 lbs – bang on 9 stones. Not much ballast to fight anyone with to be honest.
Beyond the pension record for his two and a half month service, and the discharge papers, there are no records of him having taken any further part in the war at all. Presumably he joined up again, the army willing to overlook his shortcomings as a soldier this time. We believe he died here, in Crook, County Durham, so it is probable that he died from injuries sustained in battle. The only proof we have is a commemorative scroll, showing that he had been fighting as a member of the West Yorkshire Regiment, and a memorial plaque. These were bronze plaques sent to the next of kin of every one of the servicemen who died in, or as a result of, the war to end all wars.
Known as the big penny in our family, or the ‘dead man’s penny’ to many, the plaque hangs next to my fireplace and serves as the only memorial to the 36-year-old, short, slightly built, fair-skinned, blue-eyed man who gave up his life for his country. No heroic acts, no medals, just an ordinary miner from County Durham whose son never knew him and whose daughters were too young to remember.
He gave all that he had.
Private James Henry Hudspeth
1879 – 1915
Crook, County Durham