‘On a glorious July afternoon in the year 1914, I lay on my back on Seaford Head, gazing through half-shut eyelids at the white gulls, swooping and wheeling, diving and climbing, like miniature airplanes in the blue vault of infinity.’
While this might sound like the opening of a best-selling novel, for Frederick Cornelius it was the beginning of his experience of the First World War.
A year later, Frederick volunteered to fight for his country after the war in France worsened and the onslaught of zeppelin raids on London.
He was exposed to the darkest moments of the war in the trenches on the Western Front, and was even a German prisoner of war for eight months.
Now, 99 years after Frederick embarked on his journey, his son David, 82, has published his father’s memoirs in a book, aptly titled Path of Duty.
Although it was published in 2000 for family and friends, David, from Webb Lane, Hayling Island, decided to release it on a larger scale to coincide with the centenary of the beginning of the Great War.
David says: ‘My wife has been on my collar about putting the book together. There is a sense of relief in finally finishing it, but I am immensely proud of my father. I did not value him in the same way as a young man as I do now.
‘The contribution of men like my father to the country’s safety has kind of been washed over.
‘I would love to think that he knows what is happening, wherever he may be, and would appreciate the book.’
Frederick enlisted in the popular Royal Naval Division and served mainly in horse transport, supplying the trenches with food, ammunition and equipment.
Later he fought in the trenches, and saw action in many of the key strategic areas of the Western Front across France and Belgium, including Beaumont Hamel, Arras, Gavrelle, Passchendaele, and the Welsh Ridge.
‘The Royal Naval Division appealed to all young men,’ says David.
‘At the time Great Britain had far too many sailors for the amount of boats they had, so Winston Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, made a Royal Naval Division for use on land.
‘Although it is now extinct, the Royal Marines were one of the battalions that fought in this division.
Although his father did not talk about the war, David could see how he felt about it in his behaviour.
‘My father hated anything to do with war.
‘He would not have anything to do with victory parades and when I joined the cubs he was very upset because it was a uniformed organisation.
‘I was eight years-old and although he did not stop me he made his dissatisfaction felt. ‘I can understand his rationale because you had the Hitler Youth, which was made to look appealing in propaganda but was used to create young armies out of them.’
Frederick wrote down his memories of the war after being demobilized, when he returned to his job as a shipping clerk.
‘When he came back from the War he weighed less than seven stone and he was over 6ft tall.’
The manuscript remained untouched for years, and when Frederick died of lung cancer in 1958, when David was just 25, his memoirs were left untouched in his desk.
‘I was the first one in my family to go to university, so that may have bred a sort of impatience with my father.
‘I feel great regret that our relationship did not develop from father and son to men on equal standing with each other.
‘He died before I got to that stage. I was a young man with a busy career and a wife of a year standing. There wasn’t that time to get that flow of conversation between us to ask him what happened in the war.’
‘The only time I remember him talking about it was with his best man, because he had also been in the war and there was a shared understanding between them.’
It was only many years later in 1979 that David rediscovered the manuscript as they were moving his mother out of the family home.
In 1991, shortly before David’s retirement, he began taking steps towards publishing the memoirs.
‘My secretary at the time transcribed it and I dictated it to her.’
‘My father left school at age 14 and the fact I did not have to change any of the grammar and the quality of his writing is a testament to the pre-war educational system.’
However, there were other aspects of the task that were time consuming.
‘Although it was an account of his experience he wrote it in the third person, and I had to rewrite it all into the first person.
‘I wonder if he could not bear to associate himself with what he was writing.
‘All the gassing, the shelling, the cramped and dirty conditions, the food, it was horrible.’
Some of the memories were too hard to describe at all. Frederick omits his experience as a prisoner of war entirely.
‘I don’t know much about that period of his life, to be honest. My father stopped writing when he was captured and there were a lot of unanswered questions so I wrote an additional chapter at the end of the book on what happened to him for the final 40 years of his life until his death.
‘What I do know it that he was taken prisoner in 1918. I don’t know if someone saw him fall on the battlefield, but his parents were told he was missing believed killed so for 6 weeks until they received a prisoner of war card they thought he was dead.
‘Telegrams were always used to tell next-of-kin of a soldier’s death so the appearance of the telegraph boy on his bike in the street was dreaded by those with family members in the services.
‘It is almost certain that my grandparents learned of my father’s survival in this way on the 7th of May, and coincidentally fourteen years later to the day they learned of my birth.’
To find out more about this period of Frederick’s life, David and his wife Susan went to visit Güstrow in north-east Germany where his father was held for at least three of his months in captivity.
‘He attributed his survival in Güstrow to the friendliness of the Roman Catholic nuns who would give them food.
‘They much preferred the old home guard to the younger guards because they were a lot more relaxed, whereas the younger ones were much more unbending.’
The overriding impression that his father’s memoirs have left on David is the futility of war.
‘Everyone has that basic instinct to take sides and sort out injustices. But then you stand back and think “this is pointless”.
‘The first thing people want to do is take revenge but it brings out the worst in those who are looking for justice. It is like a minefield which is ironic.’
When asked who Path of Duty would appeal to, David is momentarily at a loss for words.
‘I never really had a reader in mind. What I had was the respect for my father for what he had been through. I was thinking less of readerships then who the book is dedicated to.
‘I’m in a privileged position because I am the son of someone who fought. I am first generation, and because of my age we are a dying breed which makes the book even more important.’
David’s book Path of Duty, by Frederick Cornelius is available for purchase on lulu.com for £9.95 plus postage and packaging.
Helped by nuns
To find out more about the period of Frederick’s life as a prisoner of war, David and his wife Susan went to visit Güstrow in north-east Germany where his father was held for at least three of his months in captivity.
‘We visited the Rathaus and studied its limited archived information, and it referred to Herr Norbert Haertle who owned the documents, an album of photographs of the Güstrow camp and artefacts made by prisoners of war.’
They met Norbert at his home, and he provided them with some of the pictures that appear in the book.
‘My father attributed his survival in Güstrow to the friendliness of the Roman Catholic nuns who would give them food,’ he says.
‘The black bread they ate was a German recipe, but for an Englishman it did not look particularly palatable.’
‘The prisoners much preferred the old home guard to the younger guards because they were a lot more relaxed, whereas the younger ones were much more unbending.’