The Uncle I Never Met

Elvyn Stephenson Martin

Elvyn Stephenson Martin

The photo above shows my uncle, Elvyn Stephenson Martin, wearing his Army uniform, while on leave, some time in 1944-45.

I never had the chance to meet Uncle Elvyn, because he was killed in action on 14th April, 1945 (about 15 years before I was born, and exactly 73 years ago today). He is buried in Becklingen War Cemetery, in Germany: full details can be found on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission web site, here.

Like so many millions of others, he was a casualty of World War II, and our family was of course by no means alone in suffering such losses (or even worse). The detail that makes Elvyn’s death seem particularly pointless was that it occurred only 3 weeks before the end of the war in Europe, and thus could not possibly have accomplished anything for anyone.

I know from the CWGC details that, at the time of his death, he was a trooper with the 15th/19th  The King’s Royal Hussars, Royal Armoured Corps. The only other details I have were those that my mother (Elvyn’s younger sister) relayed to me before she died. She told me that Elvyn had spent most of the war in England, in the Military Police, which he disliked because he found himself having to arrest his own countrymen instead of engaging with the real enemy. He was therefore delighted when he was transferred to the Tank Corps, and sent across the Channel.

In early 1945, his regiment was sweeping eastwards through Northern Germany. In April, they were involved in the liberation of a concentration camp (possibly Bergen-Belsen, but I have no confirmation), apparently in support of the 11th Armoured Division. He drove into the camp in a tank, then popped his head out of the top of the turret to look around, and was shot dead by a sniper.

Those Left Behind

Elvyn’s parents, my grandparents, were naturally devastated by his death. I’m proud to say that, during the First World War, my grandfather had been a conscientious objector, for which matter of personal principle he was imprisoned. Nonetheless, he understood that, when the Second War came, there was really something to fight for, so he didn’t object to his son’s actions.

The hand-colored photo below shows my grandmother with Elvyn, shortly after his birth in 1919.

My Grandmother with Elvyn, c.1919

My Grandmother with Elvyn, c.1919

I don’t think they ever really recovered from Elvyn’s death (which is understandable).

When my grandmother died in 1979, it fell to my mother to sort through her remaining effects, but she could find no trace of Elvyn at all. There were no documents, no medals, nothing; apparently my grandmother could not bear the memories they brought back, and had disposed of everything. These few photos are all that we now have left.

The Personal Tragedy of War & Unintended Consequences

Whatever grandiose principles any war is supposedly fought for, it always ends up being a tragedy at the personal level, as my grandparents’ experience demonstrates.

Ironically, though, the World Wars led to some improvements in the lives of the general public that were definitely unintended by the promoters of the wars. For example, the First World War led to the granting of the right to vote to women, both in the US and UK. A century later, I think that most of us would agree that a “democracy” that refused voting rights to about half its population perhaps isn’t worth fighting for.

As a result of the First and Second World Wars, in Britain, the National Health Service was founded, bringing great improvements to the standard of living for many people.

Thus, I’m in no doubt that I owe a debt of gratitude to my long-lost uncle, for the consequences of his brave actions, both intended and otherwise.

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