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The human cost of war
ALL Mary Pickering knew was that her husband of a year had been killed. A returning colleague mentioned something about shells hitting his trench, but there was no official word and Mary never learned what really happened that day in 1915 to her beloved Private Robert Victor Pickering.
He was a 29 year old Sunday school teacher and baker from Markham Street in York; an ordinary man who did his extraordinary bit for king and country by enlisting in the cavalry.
But on arrival in France, Private Pickering’s horse was taken away and he was sent to fight in the fetid, sodden trenches.
Just after he left England, Private Pickering’s daughter Clarice was born, and he regularly wrote home telling his wife how much he was looking forward to a spot of leave and to seeing his baby.
But the last of those letters arrived after the telegram confirming he had been killed in action. Private Pickering only survived four weeks in the trenches and he never did see his daughter.
All Clarice had to remember the father she didn’t know were a few photos, a souvenir mug and a letter from the king saying how grateful he was that her father gave his life for others.
The gift she’d rather have had was him coming home.
Now the First World War collection has passed to Anne Carter, Clarice’s daughter, and the fourth generation of the Pickering family to live in Markham Street.
“I think it’s absolutely tragic and such a waste of life,” says Anne. “He wrote his last letter three days before being killed and said in it: ‘It’s nice to think of all the good times we had. I’d like to be able to come home today and go to the cinema in Coney Street and see the pictures I see in reality. I was always bad at remembering but I shall not forget now’.”
Anne has got to know her unknown grandfather through his letters which, considering the appalling conditions he had to endure, were remarkably chipper.
Rather than complaining about his squalid trench, he wrote to say he should perhaps consider buying an umbrella.
He said: “The people here live in an underground world.
“You will guess the reason; I will not have to tell you.”
“He always believed he was coming back, it’s what kept him going; what kept them all going, I expect,” says Anne.
“In one letter written on New Year’s Eve he wrote: ‘I wish I could send my baby some Christmas presents from here. When we get back for a rest, I’ll bring her some souvenirs from France’.”
He didn’t; a week later Private Pickering was dead and is buried at Faubourg D’Amiens Cemetery in Arras, 50 miles south-east of Calais, somewhere Anne has visited his grave many times – and also the trenches.
“I thought how miserable it was for me in the wet, so it must have been a thousand times worse when there were bullets flying around. I could get out anytime and go to a café, but my grandfather couldn’t, he was stuck there.
“I don't like to think of him in the field hospital. I like to think of him when he was having a laugh with his friends and saying things like he needed an umbrella.”
The letter from King George V to Mary Pickering
Clarice Pickering, who never met her father
Anne Carter, granddaughter of Private Robert Victor Pickering, holding the Great War souvenir mug given to his widow, Mary
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