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Rank and file
THE letter is creased and worn with age: coming apart at the folds as though read time and time again.
Most of the writing is barely legible now, but a few words can be made out. The letter is addressed to a “Dear Mrs Rankeillor” of Victoria Street, Nunnery Lane, York, and dated 11/11/1917.
Signed by the Captain of A Company, it informs Mrs Rankeillor of the circumstances of her husband’s death the day before. He “died fighting gloriously for his country”, and he “hardly suffered”, it says. What cold comfort that must have been.
The Mrs Rankeillor in question was Mary Ann Rankeillor, and her husband was Private George Frederick Rankeillor of the 9th (Yorkshire Hussars) Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment. He was only 22 when he died in action, somewhere near Arras.
He probably never met his son, also called George Frederick, who was just a year old at the time of his father’s death. But while his wife married again and went on to have four more children, she never forgot her cavalryman first husband who died so young on a foreign field.
“My grandmother carried this letter around in her purse all her life,” says Malcolm Rankeillor, the couple’s grandson.
Malcolm is 69 himself now, a retired post office worker and former president of Acomb Working Men’s Club who lives in Kingsway West.
But he still keeps, among his most treasured possessions, the few mementos he has of his long-lost grandfather. He brought them in to show The Press after reading a piece in Yesterday Once More a couple of weeks ago about the Yorkshire Hussars.
Among them is the letter that his grandmother kept always with her; a more official letter from the War Office notifying Mrs Rankeillor of her husband’s death; his grandfather’s “death penny” – the large medal struck for all those killed in action in the First World War – and several old black and white photographs.
One, probably taken at the cavalry barracks in York, Malcolm believes, shows Pte Rankeillor sitting proud and straight on his horse. Another, rather blurred and faded, shows him standing in what looks like a back yard in full military uniform.
There is also a wedding photograph showing Malcolm’s grandparents looking heartbreakingly young. “She was lovely, my grandmother,” Malcolm says.
He doesn't really know that much about his grandfather, he admits, because his own father never knew him. The Yorkshire Hussars being a TA battalion, he believes his grandfather must have volunteered as a young man at the start of the war.
Before then he had worked at Rowntrees. “His name is on the memorial there and also at St Clement’s Church.”
He believes his grandfather’s battalion may have mustered at Harrogate Stray before being sent off to war, and clearly his grandfather had at least one period of home leave, or Malcolm’s own father could never have been born in 1916.
There is even a mystery about his grandfather’s last resting place. His father believed he was buried in the churchyard of St Peter’s in Arras, Malcolm says.
But Pte Rankeillor’s name is also inscribed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Arras memorial. “That usually means they did not find the body,” Malcolm says.
He doesn’t know a great deal more, except that, like so many other young men of that generation who died on the killing fields of Europe, his grandfather was born at the wrong time.
The Rankeillor family’s “Death Penny”
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