Victory and a Brighter Future

War, it is often said, is made by old men for younger men to fight and die. Although this is true, as is the realisation that many wars are wars of vanity and/or stupidity, sometimes sadly, they are necessary. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War 2 in Europe, we need to reflect on the suffering it caused to the peoples of all nations. We also need to reflect that just as the First World War wasn’t ‘the war to end all wars’, neither did peace in Europe bring a future of peace throughout the world. It is with immense gratitude to our parents and grandparents that the end of hostilities in 1945 brought an enduring peace to Europe and the West. However, peace is a fragile object to be nurtured and handled with great care and the recent turn of events with Covid-19, Brexit and the tensions arising from the radical changes in USA diplomacy gives considerable rise to concern. We can only hope that our leaders remember how the rhetoric of the 1930s became the reality of the 1940s.

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Like virtually every other family in the land, mine suffered mixed fortunes. My father, the eldest of three boys survived the conflict as did the middle brother. Sadly, the youngest of the three died, not by enemy gunfire but by his own hand in Austria. By the age of 23 he had already seen more pain and suffering (we can assume) than he could endure and the thought of returning to civilian life proved too much. He is buried in a Commonwealth War Grave beside his fallen comrades in Klagenfurt. For his parents it must have been very hard to receive the news when they had believed all three sons had survived the fighting. My grandmother received a telegram reporting quite simply ‘single bullet wound to head when unsound of mind.’

Jack, H, Gershom - army watermark

My father (middle) with his two brothers during WW2

Gershom with poss Bertha watermark

My father’s youngest brother in happier times

My mother’s family suffered an even worse fate. Her parents, my grandparents, were Polish Jews who had come to England around 1912 and, with my grandmother’s sister who also lived here, were spared the fate of the majority of their kin. To learn that all but three of their extended families had been killed in the Holocaust must have been an unbearable burden to be carried for the remainder of their lives. They never showed their suffering – at least, not to us grandchildren – and they never spoke of Poland or their families again.

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My Polish grandparents never spoke of the enduring pain they both must have suffered

If it is hard to imagine the anxiety our forebears suffered during the conflict. It is, in some ways, even more difficult to imagine the joy, excitement and sense of relief that they must have felt as the news of impending victory circulated, followed by the reality that victory had finally been achieved. No more black-outs, no more uncertainty and, within a few short years, no more rationing. In our family no-one ever discussed such emotions but the retaining of various memorabilia stands as the record of their feelings. The letter from Field-Marshall Alexander and the Service of Thanksgiving booklet that my father kept and the left-over furniture ration tokens of my mother’s perhaps show how their priorities differed for it was always down to the womenfolk to ensure that there was food on the table and a comfortable home to return to.

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The letter foretelling victory from Field-Marshall Alexander, April 1945

WW2 memorabilia (2) watermark

Thanksgiving for Victory in Europe order of church service

WW2 memorabilia - Utility furniture tokens watermark

Ration stamps – everything was rationed, even furniture

This week, while acknowledging the pain and hardship of war, there is much to be celebrated on this 75th anniversary. Not only have we as a family and a nation, survived and thrived there is also much that unites the world. The internet has given the ‘ordinary person’ a much greater and louder international voice, mostly for the better. For me, it means I keep in touch with cousins scattered across the world, descendants of the Polish family that hatred had so very nearly completely wiped out. Through my blog and through Facebook I am in conversation with and have ‘met’ people from all walks of life and cultures – something that would have seemed unlikely if not impossible only thirty or so years ago. So, as we move forward from the celebrations, let us all strive for a world where peace, love, respect, kindness, concern and trust remain dominant. Wherever we are today, tomorrow and in the longer future, may we stay safe, stay well and be thankful for the peace of yesterday.

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The start of a new day

Exmoor’s Forgotten Neighbour

Sandwiched between barren Exmoor to the west and the rugged Quantocks to their east, the Brendon Hills appear remarkably fertile with their neat, small fields testament to a rich farming tradition. Now incorporated into the Exmoor National Park it seems to be as devoid of human life as it’s more visited partner.  It has, however, a surprising past: travel back in time one hundred and fifty years and you would find yourself in a thriving community at the forefront of Industrial Revolution technology.

 A corner of the ruined building

For years, I had been intrigued by a ruined building close to one of the few roads that leads onto Exmoor proper.  Obviously once substantial, what could this building, miles from anywhere, have been and who lived there? There were no clues as I first approached but the  ruins, now stabilised, have had information boards giving its history placed within.  It was the site of an extraordinary Victorian venture that extracted iron ore and then transported it to the coast to ship to Wales for the steel industry.  Although, there was now just this one ruined building, in its heyday over two hundred miners and their families lived close by in houses built especially for them.

 Click on the image to enlarge the poster

The explosion of railway building in the mid 1800’s had created a huge demand for – and, consequently, a shortage of – iron ore.  Mining had taken place in the region on a very small, localised scale for many centuries but the small quantities found had never been a commercial prospect.  With the rapid rise in price and with advances in extraction the Ebbw Vale Company – Welsh steel works – developed the mines. A major problem was how to transport the ore the eleven miles from the furthest mine to the coast from where it could be shipped across the sea to Wales.  The first six miles from the port of Watchet was straightforward enough, the final six miles along the top of the Brendons, although more costly, also did not create a major problem.  It was the mile that included the climb of a 1 in 4 hillside that proved to be a challenge and a costly one at that – over ten times the amount required for the same length elsewhere and over £2 million in today’s prices.  ‘The Incline’ was completed in 1861 and took just four years to build, rising almost 800 feet in just 0.6 of a mile.

The ruins of the winding house as seen from the top of the incline

Trucks of iron ore were lowered or raised down the incline on twin rails, their steam locomotives held in place by steel cables.  The huge drums that were required to do this were housed in the ‘winding house’ with the cables travelling through stone tunnels, now the silent home of bats.  The force of gravity brought empty trucks to the top in twelve minutes as the weight of the full ones descended.   At the top of the incline the trucks passed over the roof of the winding house.  Communications between the men at the top and bottom were by semaphore.

The winding house – the trains passed over its roof

The cable tunnels

The price of iron ore and the methods of extraction continued to change rapidly and the railway never made a profit, with the mines closing just eighteen years later.  Remarkably, the railway continued to carry passengers for a further five years seated on wooden planks bolted to the tops of the iron ore trucks.  It must have been an extraordinary experience to be hauled up the incline and travelling back down couldn’t have been for the faint-hearted!

 The incline today belieing the industry and grit of the men that created it

An even more short-lived attempt to re-open the mine was thwarted by the outbreak of the Great War and in 1916 the sleepers and rails were requisitioned and the drums blown up, demolishing part of the winding house building.  A further attempt  to rebuild the winding house for agricultural use was abandoned during WWII and it was only with the help of a National Lottery grant that the buildings were recently stabilised and the incline cleared of scrub and restored.

Marker stone

For further information including many early photographs and drawings visit the West Somerset Mineral Railway website by clicking here.

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