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Sunday, 11 November 2012

A Remembrance for the Grandfather I Never Knew.

Frederick Burden, seated, with an unknown soldier.
Today, 11th November 2012, is Remembrance Sunday, one of those few occasions when Armistice Day actually falls on a Sunday.

I’d like to take this opportunity to say something relating to my paternal grandfather, and the trip my wife, Valerie, and I recently took to France in order to see the monument in Arras, where his death is commemorated.

Frederick Burden, born in Sculcoates, Kingston-Upon-Hull on 14th September 1886, was one of a large family. He left school at 13 and trained as a plumber. Not much is known about him or his life, as he died before any of his 3 children, Dorothy, Vera and Ken, could get to know him. This fate was later echoed by my own experience of my father, Ken, who died a little over 2 weeks before I was born.

Frederick joined up to serve in the First World War and fought in France with the 1st East Riding Field Company, which later became the 529th Field Coy of the Royal Engineers, part of the 3rd Division. On 9th April 1917, the Company was engaged in the Battle of Arras and became part of the VI Corps, Third Army. Frederick died during the battle, on 18th June 1917, and his body was never recovered. As a result, after the war, he was commemorated, along with others of his Company, on the Arras Memorial:


Those of the 529th (East Riding) Field Company Royal Engineers who died 18th June 1917 with no known grave:
Leonard Alker, 438594.
Frederick William Barnaby, 474333, age 26
Frederick Burden, 474500, age 30
Walter Carmichael, 474562, age 33
Charles Maurice Steele 474102, age 19
William Galpin, 474387, age 20
John William Jones, 177715, age 36
Joseph Henry Parkin, Second Lieutenant, age 29
Robert Pickard Sharp, 474636

Ken Burden
Florence with Vera, Dorothy & Ken.
My own father, the youngest child, was probably at least held by Frederick, when he came home on leave a short time before the battle that claimed his life. Ken was born 16th January 1916 and died 23rd April 1948. Frederick’s eldest daughter, Dorothy, was born 11th February 1912 and died in 2001. Vera, the middle child, was born 15th December 1913 and now lives in Southampton. It was partially on Vera’s behalf that we went to France, as she’d never had the opportunity to see the memorial herself and, rapidly approaching her 100th birthday, is unlikely to do so. Of course, even Dorothy was only 5 when Frederick died, so none of the children had any recollection of their father. And his widow, Florence, who he married in 1910, died in 1958.

Dorothy’s son, Charles Hunter, started some family research a few years ago and set up a website in memory of our grandfather at  And it was through Charles, via Friends Reunited’s Genes Reunited site, that I discovered the existence of my Aunt Vera some few years ago. It turned out she’d been trying to find me. I suspect my mother’s death, when I was aged 16, and my frequent moves around the country had made this search rather difficult.

Outside the Monument.
The Memorial at Arras bounds the eastern side of the earlier Fauberg D’Amiens Cemetery, where 2,681 servicemen are buried, and records the names of 35,700 servicemen and a further 1,000 airmen, all without known graves. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, and commissioned by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Memorial itself is an austere, sober, but rather beautiful stone monument to all these deaths.

Looking along the Memorial Bays.
We visited in September this year on a day when the heavens had decided to weep, the winds to gust fitful and strong. The walk from the railway station, where we’d journeyed from Paris, was wet and wild. It surprised us that there were no directions from there to the monument, but we’d brought maps and found it easily enough.

The open fronts of the tall arches occasionally allowed in drenching rain as we sought out the relevant bay where we could find Granddad’s name. But a quick look in the register, housed in a small cabinet, led us where we needed to go. The names are carved into the stone and the years have softened the letters a little so that they blend with the background. But we found Frederick’s name and spent some time in silent contemplation of a life about which we know so little; a life ended too soon in the madness of war.

There is a visitors’ book and I was able to make a short entry on behalf of ourselves and of Aunt Vera.
Rows of graves
We ventured out amongst the graves for a sortie between blustery showers but quickly returned to cover as the unseasonal weather continued. We met a young couple from Colchester, Essex, who’d made the visit simply out of interest and to pay their respects to these unknown heroes. And we were able to guide a small group from Birmingham who were having difficulty identifying the bay in which their relative was commemorated.
Frederick's name on the Memorial

The whole place has an air of solemn sadness about it, yet manages to convey a feeling of hope for the future in its tall open arches of pale stone. We were glad to have managed the visit and both felt that it, alone, had made our trip to France worthwhile.

Pointing out the Inscription
Our walk back to the railway station took us through the Place de la Victor Hugo, where we followed a French woman out of the lashing rain into the Peter Pan Brasserie, a proper French Café. There, the patron, who spoke no English, and Valerie, whose French is much better than my few words, managed to organise a hot meal for us, accompanied, of course, by a glass of real French red table wine.

On the TGV train back to the Gard du Nord in Paris, the weather slowly improved and, once out of the station, we found ourselves in such bright warm sunshine that we climbed to Sacre Coeur and walked through Montmartre and along the wide avenues until we reached our hotel near the Arc De Triomphe.

A trip worth making for us, and a good day.

Florence Barker, his wife.
Remembering the dead of those appalling wars is often seen as a duty, but, when there’s a personal element, the whole process becomes far more real. Our visit to the Arras Memorial and our short sojourn of contemplation over Granddad, Frederick Burden, will live with me long. Each Armistice Day, I’ll have more reason to spend those two short minutes in silent thought and thanks for those heroes who gave their lives to ensure a safe world so that we now live in freedom.

Commemorative Death Penny
We will never know the exact circumstances of his death; whether it came swift, or in slow agony, whether he died alone under the bullet of a sniper or with others of his Company, victims of a shell. But of one thing we can be confident, since he was posthumously award the Death Penny, inscribed with his name and the words, ‘He Died For Freedom And Honour’, that he died with courage. This small coin came with a note saying "I join with my grateful people in sending you this memorial of a brave life given for others in the Great War. George R J."

Along with all those other men commemorated at the Arras Memorial, and many others in France, Europe, and the whole world, he died fighting in defence of a better future for his family. That other men, and it is always men, caused the conflict that resulted in his death is a matter of great shame for humankind. Whether such violent conflict will ever be eradicated from our race is uncertain. But those of us who remain, those of us provided with a promise of long life and freedom by those who to kept us free, must strive to ensure we make full use of our opportunities. We must live our lives in celebration of the bravery of such men as Frederick Burden, the grandfather I never knew.

Thank you, Granddad Frederick, I Will Remember You.

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