Andrew Turnbull became something of a father figure to the young men who fought alongside him during the First World War.
A 30-year-old husband and dad, the Royal Marine was older than many of his comrades living among the horrors of the Western Front trenches.
As the men endured mud, cold, illness and the never ending threat of enemy fire, Private Turnbull would comfort them by reading passages from the Bible.
And the stretcher bearer must have been something of an inspiration as he had already survived the horrific campaigns at Gallipoli and the Somme.
But on the afternoon of October 26, 1917 his luck ran out and his life was extinguished in an explosion of shells during the battle of Passchendaele.
He was just one of hundreds of thousands of men to lose their lives on the muddy fields of Flanders in Belgium during the four months of the campaign.
But at the Royal Marines Museum in Southsea, his story has been selected to represent all the marines killed during the First World War.
Learning and education officer Andrew Whincup is busy leading workshops with Portsmouth schools in the run-up to Remembrance Day.
And he says the best way to get the message across is to let the children ‘meet’ the marines who fought by telling them some of the men’s stories.
‘Only when they have been introduced to someone and they have a mental picture of him as a real person with a real family do we then start talking about those colossal numbers,’ he says.
‘That’s the way for people to remember. That’s what really makes it hit home.
‘We ask are these guys worth remembering 90 and 60 years later? The answer is yes. Were they brave? The answer is yes. Are they special? The answer is no because there are so many more stories like those. At the Battle of Passchendaele the total British casualties was 450,000 – that was in just a few months.’
The workshops are tailored for young minds so the tone is kept as light as possible when they’re told the stories of the marines. But it’s a shock to hear just how many men like Andrew Turnbull lost their lives.
‘It’s quite jarring. Suddenly this thing they do at school in November because everyone does it is something that really matters,’ says Andrew.
‘I find this time of year difficult because I’m talking about it all the time. But it’s also very rewarding. You see that moment – when the penny is dropping, when they realise why we’re doing all this remembering.’
It’s the youngest generations that will carry the messages and memories into the future and Andrew says the stories surrounding major events like the battles of the Western Front, the Battle of Jutland and D-day really sink in, particularly tales about people like the ‘telephone man’.
Will Meatyard was a combat telephonist in the First World War and it was his job to go out into No Man’s Land with a telephone, take officers’ reports and phone back the battle situation. He would be racing around and mending cables in the thick of the battle zone.
‘You often get children coming back to the museum with their families, say 18 months, two years later, and they’ll still talk about the ‘telephone man’, says Andrew.
The stories are drawn from the museum’s massive collection of official and unofficial documents, including letters, diaries and personal gifts.
The Royal Marines Museum collection contains more than a million photographs, a million documents and 30,000 objects, which help to preserve the history of the marines from the 17th century right through to more recent conflicts like the Falklands and on to the present day.
The archive is used for exhibitions including the current display More Than A Name, which runs until April. It also uses the personal stories of marines to help us remember and shows what people have uncovered when they research their family histories.
‘With the exhibition we wanted to encourage people to look at what’s in their attics and start thinking about their own family history,’ says archivist Matt Little.
‘And we have selected the stories for it quite randomly. They’re not necessarily the most glamorous, secret missions and glory, things like that.
‘But they represent a lot of people and they’re interesting and important.’
And the museum also ensures visitors are reminded of the work the marines do in current conflicts by collecting stories and personal items from the men on the ground.
A Recent Operations exhibition gives visitors a chance to find out more about the corps’ work and remembers the 56 Royal Marines who have died in Afghanistan.
‘We’re trying to show that the Royal Marines story doesn’t end here,’ says assistant curator Anna Cummins.
Memorials and Remembrance Services
Housed in the former Royal Marines Artillery barracks at Eastney, the museum covers the marines’ history from 1664 to the present day with a vast collection of objects, paintings and archive documents.
The Medal Room boasts most of the museum’s collection of more than 8,000 medals, including the 10 Victoria Crosses awarded to marines.
Visitors can also expect hands-on activities, interactive displays and special exhibitions.
The museum sits on an important site for marking conflicts and remembering those who have lost their lives.
The Yomper statue at the site entrance is the best-known memorial. The statue commemorates the Falklands conflict of 1982 and represents the Royal Marines who yomped across the inhospitable terrain to help recapture the area from Argentinian forces.
The garden in the museum grounds is the site of several unit memorials and the final resting place for many marines whose ashes are scattered over the rose beds.
The Lumsden memorial in the grounds has become the focal point for Remembrance Day services.
At 44, Brigadier General Lumsden was the oldest marine to be awarded the Victoria Cross for leading the capture of six enemy field guns under heavy fire during the First World War.
A remembrance service is being held at the museum on Sunday, November 13. The service begins at 10am with a bugler from The Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Collingwood. Representatives of the Fort Cumberland guard will fire the gun at 11am to mark the beginning of the silence. Following the service there will be free admission to the museum.
Royal Marines yesterday and today
The Royal Marines – the sea-going soldiers of the Royal Navy – have served their country for more than 340 years.
The following are just some of the battles, wars and conflicts in which they have fought.
· Battle of Trafalgar 1805
There were 2867 Royal Marines in action on the day Nelson outmanoeuvred Admiral Villeneuve to gain a decisive victory over the Franco-Spanish fleet. Seventeen officers and 332 men were killed or wounded, mainly due to their exposed positions on deck.
· First World War – the war at sea
Serving throughout the war, the corps’ commitment to the big ships in the war at sea reached its peak at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.
· First World War – the war on land
Royal Marines fought in the major campaigns of the war including Gallipoli and the battles of the Western Front. They formed machine gun companies, signals, medical units and other support units.
The strength of the corps in 1918 stood at 55,000; the total casualties were 12,315 killed and wounded.
· Second World War
The tasks undertaken were many and varied. Marines saw service on the largest ships, manned landing craft and even used canoes for a daring raid on enemy shipping (see Cockleshell Heroes).
Royal Marines formed their own commando units from 1942. On D-Day, some 17,500 Royal Marines took part in the largest deployment in the corps’ history. About 2,000 were commandos, while the remainder served in landing craft and war ships. The commandos continued into France and north-west Europe.
The total killed and wounded in the war was 7,542.
· Post Second World War
Royal Marines have fought or performed security duties all over the world including Palestine 1948, Malaya 1950-52, Korea 1950-53, Suez 1956, Cyprus 1955-58, Northern Island, Falklands 1982, Bosnia 1995 and Iraq 2003 – 2009.
Royal Marines units are either held on high readiness, able to deploy quickly, or are engaged on military operations. Their flexibility and amphibious ship-to-shore role enables them to undertake numerous types of work and their role also involves peacekeeping and disaster relief.
Units have been deployed to Afghanistan since 2002.
The Royal Marines Museum played its part in recent BBC2 documentary The Most Courageous Raid of World War II.
In the programme, aired this week, former marine Paddy Ashdown retold the story of the Cockleshell Heroes – Royal Marines who canoed almost 100 miles behind enemy lines to blow up enemy ships in 1942.
Not only did the museum provide a location for some of the filming, staff helped with research and provided a letter written by one of the men to his Portsmouth-based girlfriend.
Robert Ewart was billeted at a house belonging to Heather Powell’s mother in Southsea. His last letter to Heather before going on the mission is among the collection at the museum.
Ewart was captured during the raid and shot by the Germans and tragically Heather died a year later of TB.
The raid, immortalised in the 1955 film Cockleshell Heroes, saw 12 men setting out in canoes to make their way up the Gironde estuary to blow up cargo ships at Bordeaux, France.
It was an incredibly dangerous mission and they were led by the uncompromising Major Herbert ‘Blondie’ Haslar. Only Haslar and Marine Bill Sparks returned but the mission was a success.