My mother was a small child when Joseph died, but I grew up with his photograph in a frame, always in the house somewhere, and now I have that same photo in the same frame in my own home.
Most of what I learned about him came from her – not that she knew much, other than that he’d been killed on the first day of the battle. She also had some letters, which I have.
Even now, I read the letter he wrote to my mother when she was five, asking her to be good and saying he hoped to come and see her soon, and a tear comes to my eye.
I also have a magazine cutting, from when the Thiepval Memorial was being built in the late 1920s and she’s added a note: ‘Dad’s name on here’. I remember seeing that note when I was a child.
The War Memorial Cottage in Burwell, Cambridgeshire, which bears Corporal Mason’s name.
An extraordinary coincidence
My knowledge about Joseph took a big leap forward recently when I started doing my own family research, prompted by an extraordinary coincidence.
I always used to record the ceremony at the Cenotaph to watch later, and around eight years ago, the BBC ran a montage of black-and-white images, photos of soldiers – and there, in the centre, was my grandfather’s photo. I replayed it to be sure.
Corporal Joseph Mason.
A year later, I visited the Somme battlefield with friends, and in the Thiepval visitor centre was confronted by the wonderful glass panel there that features 600 of the missing – and there was that photo again; that’s where the BBC had got it from.
It was a poignant moment for me, because I wondered what my late mother would have thought if she could have seen how this man, her father, had not been forgotten.
The repercussions of war
What happened after his death to the family – to my mother and her four brothers – is part of our story; but sadly, it’s part of the story of millions of others, because the children were sent to live in separate homes, and the family struggled to survive without Joseph. These were the repercussions of the war.
My grandfather sacrificed his life, but his wife and children were far from unique in the dire consequences that followed back home.
“But of course, there was no welfare state, and that’s why in 1921 The Royal British Legion was so badly needed.”
It’s difficult to look back with 21st-century eyes but the more research you do, the more painful it becomes: I have a 1917 local newspaper clipping that tells the tale of my uncles being boarded out and my grandmother entering the workhouse. But of course, there was no welfare state, and that’s why in 1921 The Royal British Legion was so badly needed.
Daphne Smith with her grandfather’s war memorabilia.
Joseph was in his mid-thirties and married with a family when he volunteered. He had a comfortable life, but he wanted to do his bit. Two of his sons went on to serve in the army during the Second World War with the rank of sergeant, while a third was in the RAF. The next generation carried on serving their country, as Joseph had done.