About five years ago my brother discovered that there existed a ‘mirror image’ family on the other side of the world that was identical in almost every respect to my own.
My own family lives in the Sutherland Shire of Sydney in peace and prosperity. My wife Anne and I have three teenage boys and a younger daughter. I have high hopes and aspirations that they might all grow up to be bright, useful members of society with families of their own.
The father of this distant ‘mirror image’ family is called George and he was once a coal miner from the tough working class mining town of Barnsley in South Yorkshire, England. He has a wife called Alice and also has three teenage boys and a much younger daughter.
Their oldest son, also named George was born just three months before my nineteen-year-old son Thomas James. George’s second son, James was born a year before our eighteen-year-old son Patrick and their third son Arthur at seventeen is a similar age to my third son Michael George. To compound the similarities, both our daughters, Alice and Sarah respectively are the babies of the family born several years after the boys.
I have only met one member of my mirror image family Alice, not that she would have recalled this meeting which was many years ago.
My family surname is exceptionally rare and named after a small Yorkshire village in the Calder Valley (where the TV series ‘Happy Valley’ was filmed). Despite this rarity we share the same surname as our mirror image family. As it happens we also share twenty-five percent of our DNA, as we are directly related.
The similarities between our two families were a constant source of joy and wonder to me. However, over the course of the last five years my joy was tempered by the knowledge that this would be the year when their eldest son George would be savagely butchered in a hail of bullets. George would die of his wounds in a grimy hospital several days later. There was nothing I could do to stop it and nor could I warn the family of the looming tragedy that was about to befall them.
On the 3rd July the inevitable happened and George is now buried in a simple grave in a foreign field. He did not die alone. Twenty thousand of his fellow soldiers and countrymen died with him in a single day.
You see not only are our two families on opposite sides of the world, but we are separated by the dimension of time. Exactly one hundred years apart, in fact. My brother discovered the existence of this family by looking up our ancestral records in the UK census of 1911. George’s traumatised younger brother James was our grandfather and I can only imagine the grief that his family had to endure and how they must have lamented at the senseless waste of life that was the Battle of the Somme.
It would have been little comfort to them that the massive loss of life at the Somme on both sides ultimately led to the defeat of the German army as their war machine finally ran out of men and resources. No-one will ever know if my Great Uncle George died bravely or whether he was mown down in the first minutes of the attack. But one can be certain that his death would have had a massive impact on that ordinary working class family back in Barnsley.
I could not contemplate such a terrible thing happening to my children today and yet in every respect, George’s father had the same hopes and aspirations for his family as I have for mine one hundred years later. The twenty-year-old George was only one of a million such casualties that the British and Commonwealth forces suffered in World War One. He has become a source of pride to me just as countless other families are now honouring the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. Our duty now is to instil in our children the values and aspirations that George would have brought back with him had he survived that fateful day in 1916.