At the end of a fairly hectic weekend, yesterday for want of anything better to do I prepared a light supper and settled down to watch BBC1’s Countryfile programme which was being transmitted at 6.30pm after the early evening news.
It turned out to be a World War One special, with three of the regular presenters transplanted to the area around Arras in north-eastern France in order to ‘follow the progress’ of ancestor relatives who had taken part in the conflict. I immediately telephoned my brother to tip him off that this was the subject of the programme, in case he wasn’t aware of it – he’s an avid researcher of all matters 1914-1918 – and then returned to my armchair to watch it myself.
Countryfile tends to arrange itself by beginning with its presenters introducing themselves and their subjects in turn … and then, during the course of the 60 minute programme, switching between each of them two or three times (in sequences between 5 to 10 minutes long), so that – presumably – the viewer receives bite-sized, easily-digestible, pieces of their story; doesn’t get bored; and indeed hopefully stays watching in order to re-join any story in which they are particularly interested.
By this route I watched the sequence of presenter Tom Heap about his ancestor/relation Tom Gillespie, who had been educated at Winchester and then New College, Oxford before joining the King’s Own Scottish Borderers as a lieutenant upon the outbreak of war in 1914.
Gillespie … Tom Gillespie. Somehow the name rang a bell with me. As I watched Mr Heap, with an expert in tow, try to gain an understanding of the terrain and battlefield on which his relative had fought at the Battle of the Aisne in September 1914, I tried to delve back into the recesses of my mind.
Tom Heap had said that Gillespie had been a serious rower at Oxford and had attended the 1912 Stockholm Olympics with the New College VIII. Might my connection with him have been that he was also a rugby player? I know a fair bit about Oxford rugby players before WW1. I sped to a bookcase and looked up the name – a blank, no Gillespie had ever won an Oxford rugby blue.
Maybe I was deluding myself.
As Countryfile returned to Tom Heap again, he had travelled to a different part of the Western Front. With his expert, he was learning about where his relative had next fought. The tone of the conversation was ominous, as if the location had been somewhere he was either wounded or killed.
I could take it no longer. I again nipped to my bookcase and looked in the index of the biography of a famous rugby player, published by his father in 1919.
There was a ‘Gillespie, T.’ featured, just once, on page 244.
I turned to page 244. It was telling a tale of a skiing holiday undertaken by the rugby player’s family at Mürren in January 1912. The rugby player had enjoyed considerable success in the assorted sports games arranged one evening at their hotel. His father noted: ‘I well remember his desperate struggle in the pillow-fight with Tom Gillespie’.
The name ‘Gillespie’ had a small ‘1’ beside it, indicating that a footnote was at the bottom of the page.
I looked at it. The footnote said ‘Lt, Scottish Borderers, killed October 18th 1914’.
Just as I read this, presenter Tom Heap simultaneously announced to the BBC viewers “It was here, on 18th October 1914, that Tom Gillespie fell …” [He was aged just 21].
In other words, Heap’s ancestor was the self-same individual referred to in the book I had just looked up – what a coincidence that was!