Thursday, September 03, 2009

A Family Six Pack : Part 4 - John Arthur Burnett

John Arthur Burnett 1899 - 1967
Looking at the six faces on that 1917 family photograph, perhaps the most compulsive is that of my Uncle John. In his face we see something of the uncertainty of a young man about to go to war, a young man just about to cross the very threshold to adulthood. Looking through the various photographs I have of Uncle John I have only just realised that this is the only one where he wasn't smiling. Knowing what he was to face within a year of the photograph being taken, he cannot be blamed for his pensive look. If it had been me, I would have been terrified.
John Arthur was born in the last year of the nineteenth century, the eldest child of Enoch and Harriet Ellen Burnett. He was brought up in a working class district of Bradford and is listed in the 1911 census as a "school usher". As he was only 12 at the time it would appear that this was one of those unpaid supervisory posts you gave to kids in their final years before leaving school and starting work - what in my day was called a school prefect. By the time he joined the army in 1917 - at the age of 18 - he was listed in his British Army Service Record as a warehouseman. John joined the West Yorkshire Regiment almost as soon as he was of age and following a period of initial training in England he was posted to the Western Front in February 1918. According to his war record he seems to have managed to keep his head down - that is until the battle of Aisne/Chemin Des Dames in May 1918. On the 27th of May, amidst heavy fighting, he was captured by the Germans just outside the village of Pontavert. He was held prisoner in Stuttgart and didn't find his way back to England until January 1919. The service record provides a detailed chronology - he was reported missing in action on the 5th June 1918 and it wasn't until December that it emerged he had been taken as a prisoner of war. It must have been a chronology of misery for my grandparents - six months of hoping for the best but fearing the worst.
By 1920 John was married and has started a family. He was now working as a wagon driver and - in typical Burnett fashion - he would happily spend his time under the bonnet of his wagon trying to work out how it worked or, more likely, why it didn't work. I know little of his married life, little was ever said in the family. But the marriage must have had problems because by 1936 he had left his wife and family and returned to live at home in Arctic Parade, Bradford. No contact with his children was maintained and therefore I never knew the only three first cousins I had. A few years ago I was contacted by e-mail by the son of one of those cousin's who was doing research into his family and we were able to exchange information and reconnect two parts of the family seventy years after the split had taken place.
John married again in 1946 however his marriage to Doris produced no further children. But he was a happy man, with a well-developed sense of fun. When I was quite young he once took me to a football match to watch Bradford Park Avenue play Halifax Town and fed me with boiled sweets throughout the match. His life and mine - connected by our shared memories - span the centuries in a way that is almost beyond belief. He was born in the nineteenth century, fought in the First World War, drove ancient wagons during the 1920s, fed boiled sweets to his young nephew in the 1950s. And here he is - in the twenty first century - on the web.
Parts of this post are based on earlier posts dating back to 2007. If you have read the earlier posts I apologise for the repetitions (but admire the way you have stayed loyal to the blog over the years!). To read the earlier installments of this "Family Six Pack" mini-series you can follow these links:

13 comments:

  1. What a great story. We lose our family history here when my great great grandparent comes here from overseas, you don't find much out about them. It was rare that they kept track of the families that they left behind. Just recently we learned that my great great grandfather Burgus was one of the first set of children and that there was a remarriage with more half brothers and sisters. Great story Mr. Burnett, I need to spend time this winter catching up on your writing.

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  2. This was an interesting story and the pictures were the glue that kept me reading and not wandering on.

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  3. LD : Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for your kind words. And Larry, due to your splendid blogs I feel that I know you and your family well by now so please, please call me Alan.
    Abe : Thanks Abe. As ever, I value your comments (and this also goes for the lengthy comments you left the other day on my daily photo blog. It is always a pleasure to pick up tips from a Master.

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  4. A really good story--I had an aunt who "went her own way"--interestingly, she was the only person besides myself from either side of the family who moved to the western states--everyone else has remained in New England.

    I really enjoy this series.

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  5. Interesting Alan. Those poor guys. I look at modern day soldiers and wonder how on earth they can smile in the face of horror and danger.

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  6. Alan, as one who left home at 17, I know the fear that your uncle was going through. Uncertain...too bad you never got to meet your cousins but to finally meet up with as family link( so to speak ), that's bloomin' marvelous!

    @Valerie, things have changed dramatically since I was in the Navy & Army. It's gotten more "politically correct", if I may use an oxymoron here...

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  7. Your type of blog is an inspiration. Maybe, one day, I'll get down to doing something like that myself. My own blog just hints at my ancestors.

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  8. Sub: Political maybe but ... correct? How's that for a can of worms!

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  9. there is something about his eyes that captures me...then reading his story i wonder did he have and incling of what was to come...love the series AB.

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  10. @ Valerie, major can of crawlers that-LOL!

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  11. so many tantalizing bit to uncle john's story....least what you have. I'm hooked on the family six pack...thanks for the links to earlier parts!

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  12. He looks so bewildered as if he's uncertain about his fate. Sadly, my brother also named 'John' has gone his own way and we no longer keep in touch. His choice, not mine. These are a wonderful tribute to your family and all inspired by a single photograph. On another note, my surname is Bainbridge, a place in Yorkshire I believe. . maybe that's where I should start?

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  13. What A Fine Bloke !(although a small cruel streak,taking you to watch Halifax Town!).I never even realised or have ever thought about Prisioners Of War in The Great War.I,m sure not much literature about such things..........A Book In The Making Alan?

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