Some years ago a stash of family records was handed down to me, among which were photos of an enigmatic young man in army uniform, as well as photos of the same young man as a teenager looking uncomfortable at family gatherings. This, I learnt, was my Great-Uncle Harry, born in 1884, died in 1916. I previously had no idea that I had a Great-Uncle Harry, much less that his life was cut short at the age of 32 when he was killed in the Battle of the Somme. This discovery both shocked me and made me want to know much more about him.
I’ve always been fascinated by the First World War: why it was fought, why the slaughter of so many was allowed to continue for so long. Now, through a member of my own family who kept a diary while on the battlefields, I have been able to gain a personal insight into what it was like to fight for king and country in one of history’s most devastating conflicts.
Harry was not a star pupil or a much-admired public figure. Nor was he a hero. He remained a Private for most of his war career, despite surviving the murderous assault on Gallipoli and the opening stages of the Somme offensive. It wasn’t easy, therefore, to trace each step of a life that began amid the comfort and security of a successful Victorian family and ended in the mud of northern France. Yet as I proceeded on my quest, I uncovered many tantalising fragments and details, while also learning more about the family I was born into and the country in which I was raised. And as I drew closer to Harry, I discovered things we had in common. Time separates us, but not by that much. If Great-Uncle Harry had survived the war and lived to the age I am now, he could have been there at my 21st birthday party.
Writing the book is the closest I can get to meeting him.
Buy your copy of Great-Uncle Harry: A Tale of War and Empire from our shop at themichaelpalin.com from 28th September, where you can get your book signed and dedicated by Michael.
Also available from these book stores.
Great-Uncle Show Tour Dates
Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, Monday 25th September 2023 – Buy tickets
Windsor Literary Festival, Holy Trinity Garrison Church, Windsor, 28th September 2023 – Buy tickets
Chelsea History Festival, Royal Hospital Chelsea, London, Friday 29th September 2023 – Buy tickets
City Halls, Glasgow, Sunday 1st October 2023 – Buy tickets
Younger Hall, St Andrews, Monday 2nd October 2023 – Buy tickets
Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, Tuesday 3rd October 2023 – Buy tickets
Newcastle Cathedral, Newcastle, Wednesday 4th October 2023 – Buy tickets
The Forum, Bath, Saturday 7th October 2023 – Buy tickets
Cheltenham Literature Festival, Cheltenham, Sunday 8th October 2023 – Buy tickets
Good Housekeeping Live, London, Saturday 11th November 2023 – Buy tickets
National Liberal Club, London, Tuesday 14th November 2023 – Buy tickets
Chester Cathedral, Chester, Monday 20th November 2023 – Buy tickets