From the time, many years ago, when Michael first heard that his grandfather had a brother, Harry, who died in tragic circumstances, he was determined to find out more about him.
The quest that followed involved hundreds of hours of painstaking detective work. Michael dug out every bit of family gossip and correspondence he could. He studied every relevant official document. He tracked down what remained of his great-uncle Harry’s diaries and letters, and pored over photographs of First World War battle scenes to see whether Harry appeared in any of them. He walked the route Harry took on that fatal, final day of his life amid the mud of northern France. And as he did so, a life that had previously existed in the shadows was revealed to him.
Great-Uncle Harry is an utterly compelling account of an ordinary man who led an extraordinary life. A blend of biography, history, travelogue and personal memoir.
‘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.’ Michael Palin