The historian Jay Winter defines ‘second-order memory’ as the collection, organisation, exhibition and cataloguing of memory – the natural process of remembrance as those who knew the dead pass away.
I thought nothing had survived in our family that connects us with Lionel Morris, other than my dad’s memories, and one photograph of Morris's mother Lil. So the most distant of links rediscovered has sweetness and poignancy. In the spring of 2016, my dad’s cousin Terry handed me a faded red volume with a spine that was falling apart. It was a birthday book that belonged to his Reid grandmother, Morris’s own Aunt Lily. These little reminder volumes have gone out of fashion, now that we’re all using our mobiles to store everything but the cat – but what lovely family heirlooms to pass down. A tatty little repository of memory like this is priceless for family historians. It’s literally a whiff of the past, with its musty leather cover and leaf-thin pages.
Physical items like Lily Reid’s birthday book are loaded with significance for the next generation. Smaller than a mobile phone, Lily’s book has a frontispiece of Scotland’s Bard and a title page “Birthday Chimes from Burns”, with every day of the year given a snippet of poetry to accompany the owner’s annotations. In some ways it’s preferable to a diary; the scarcity of details leaves imagination plenty of space to create unknown histories. Names themselves are evocative (Ada Hobbs and Evie Pinkherd are my favourites), and amongst the relatives and friends there is an entry for February 23rd: “Lill. Died 24th” – Morris’s mother’s birthday and death dates recorded on the same page, with one day and eighty years between them. There’s other similarly bare entries: “Geoffrey, born 1911, died 1911” and “Daddy, died 1938”. I have another birthday book, given to my great-grandmother as a Christmas present in 1905, this one a compendium of Robert Browning’s work and wisdom. Although I have scoured it in vain for mentions of the Morrises, it does have one unidentified scribble that conjures up a whole world of lost memories: the birthday on November 14th of “our fairy godmother”. Who was she? And what were her magical qualities?
Andy Arnold, whose detailed work on Carshalton’s war dead was one of my first sources for Morris, told me about some of the mementos kept by other families for generations: “The main ones are medals and death pennies, followed by photos and documents/letters. One family had a commemorative ‘scroll’, these were mass produced and the soldiers’ details could be added. Another had an original photo of their relative’s grave, plus a matchbox holder that belonged to him… other common items can include trench art and war ‘souvenirs’ such as shell cases. There are even some instances of families having the original wooden grave markers, which were offered to them when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission replaced them with stone.”
I know of other physical items associated with Morris that have long since disappeared. Some may still be out there. I live in hope of discovering others. And since I began researching his life, there are objects that have, quite wonderfully, reappeared.
But I’ll save them for the book.
If you have any treasured mementoes in your family, I’d love to hear about the stories behind them.
In my darker moments "Who Do You Think You Are?" occurs to me as a statement of outrage at my own qualifications in biographical studies. I don't possess the gift of confidence in excessive quantities. But my curiosity is irritatingly forceful. I took many deep breaths and reached out to the experts.
After much reading and some fairly unfocused internet surfing in the autumn of 2014, I found a startling image of Morris's plane crawling with Germans from a book snippet online. Mercifully he wasn't pictured in it. Nor was he nearby on a stretcher, or burnt to a frazzle on the ground as many airmen so horrifically were. I emailed the publishers who put me in touch with the author James Miller. Jim's response was immediate and generous, sending me a PDF of a letter held by the R.A.F. Museum in London. It was written to Morris's parents by his friend and flight leader, Captain David Gray, who had been shot down on the same day and languished in a P.O.W. camp. Gray's letter was a gift - a vivid first-hand account of the circumstances of Lionel's death. It was full of weird inconsistencies.
When I questioned the R.A.F. Museum further about material on Morris, they told me they had his unpublished notebook diary from the summer of 1916. My initial visit to the museum’s research room, when I saw Lil’s name written on the front of the diary, gave me the first physical link to Morris as a family member. Being able to hear his voice in those small, rustling pages gave a dramatic imperative to the telling of his tale that I found irresistible.
I had high hopes after reading Under the Guns of the Red Baron of pinning down details of Morris's early life. Sadly, of the two authors, Hal Giblin, who researched the personal details, had passed away, and the other, Norman Franks, (whose works on First World War aviation are sacred texts to me and many others), had no access to any of Hal’s original research papers. The work of Mike O’Connor, with his Airfields and Airmen series, was also key to my early searches – but he too had passed away.
One of the Herculean feats of scholarship inspired by the war in the air is “The Sky Their Battlefield”, the most complete and astonishingly comprehensive record of Allied combats and casualties. It’s written in a language of necessary abbreviation - K.I.A. or P.O.W. need little explanation, others such as EoL (East of Lines) bring an ominous warning of bad news, or oblivion: NKG - No Known Grave. Its author Trevor Henshaw (happily very much alive) has been a patient and indispensable guru.
The greatest blessing in my research was finding the Great War Forum. Being able to access this extraordinary community of both professional and amateur historians was intimidating and thrilling; these people have been studying World War One with infinite care and attention for decades and their passion for solving even the most obscure mysteries continues to be an inspiration.
My recommended research anthems are now (in no particular order):
Don't Give Up
Ain't No Mountain High Enough
With A Little (make that a lot) of Help From My Friends
I'm open to further suggestions.
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
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