As we remember the dead of two World Wars, let us not forget the other victims – men who survived with damaged bodies or minds. We don’t see their names on war memorials, but for many the wars took their lives just as surely as they took the lives of the dead.
My gran’s brother, William Henry “Willie” Axford, was one of these victims. He was born in the village of Hamsterley Colliery, Co Durham on 24th March 1894, the third of nine children of William and Lizzie Axford. By 1918 the family had moved to the village of High Spen, and William snr and Willie were working underground at Garesfield Colliery in the centre of the village.
Because of his occupation, Willie wasn’t called up until late in the war, and it wasn’t until early 1918 that he became “58860, Private William Henry Axford, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.” As if it wasn’t bad enough putting Willie, a Durham lad, in a Yorkshire regiment, the army soon transferred him to another one, and Willie was “76082, Private William Henry Axford, West Yorkshire Regiment.”
On September 15th 1918 Willie found himself at Folkestone, about to set sail for France and he sent a postcard to his parents back at High Spen. It read “Dear Mother, Just a few lines to [say] I am all right up to now and am at Folkestone. By the time you get this I will be in France. There is a lot of us, all kinds of solders down port. Willie” [Capitalisation and punctuation corrected]. He clearly had no idea what lay ahead.
Only 58 days of the war left, but whatever happened to Willie in those 58 days destroyed him mentally and damaged him physically. As his niece, who lived next door, put it; a happy-go-lucky boy went off to war and a broken old man came back. Willie was never able to work again or to form relationships. He lived with his parents for the rest of his life and was only happy when he was pottering in his father’s allotment.
Willie promised that he would shoot himself if there was another war. Perhaps he meant it, perhaps he didn’t, but he was never put to the test. Willie died of pancreatic cancer at the RVI, Newcastle on November 2nd 1938, a year before war descended once again on Europe. In many ways, of course, Willie had died 20 years earlier in France.