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By Ryan Taylor

Cecil Withers died recently. That may seem unremarkable - none of us knew him. Except that he was 106 years old, and one of only 14 known British World War I soldiers still alive.

Their longevity makes them remarkable, and also the stories they have to tell about life in the trenches on the Western Front. It is unlike any war that's being fought today. Muddy, wet, cold and hungry, the soldiers also had various dangers to confront. These included not only snipers but rats and disease.

Thirty years ago a World War I vet described to me how the constant wet and cold affected soldiers' feet. Officials were concerned and came up with a salve, thick and greasy, that would cover the toes and keep the moisture out.

Every soldier was issued with a can, and the guys were overjoyed. They found that the greasy mixture was perfect for frying food over their tiny fires. They asked the bigwigs to send more.

Cecil Withers' story was complicated. He was too young to enlist in 1915, so he lied about his name and age. In those days, there were no identity cards.

In 1916, after training, he was due to go to France. He had run away from home, but he didn't want to go to war without getting in touch with his parents. He wasn't sure of his welcome, however.

So he wrote to his father, saying he would tell them where he was, if he had an assurance it was all right. He asked his father to put a notice in the personals column of The Times in London promising not to reveal his true age.

The notice appeared, ending, "...past forgiven - Father". Withers arrived in France in December 1916.

This story is a good example of a family tale that is both interesting and informative. In today's regimented world, it would not be possible to enlist so casually. Probably modern parents would hire private detectives to trace their missing child.

Instead we learn how many boys thought that 'signing up' was glamorous, and worried that the war would be over before they had a chance to participate.

The Withers descendants no doubt have some idea that Cecil was a strong personality, and perhaps had done something to quarrel with his parents so thoroughly that he left home.

Was his father a martinet? Did the house bristle with bad temper and tension?

Whatever the situation before Withers left home, his parents' hearts were warmly affectionate when it came to the point. One hopes they had a chance to visit with Withers before embarkation.

Family stories can be taken for granted. Reading about Withers in his obituary, a non-genealogist might skim over the tale of his enlistment. A family historian recognizes that here is a many-layered glimpse into the past, which tells us about history, about Cecil Withers' personality and about his father.

Now that it is written down, the family can pass it on for generations. Any time now, World War I is going to slip away from us, no longer the life experience of someone we can talk to, but merely history. It might be vividly recorded in film and print, but they cannot take the place of hearing someone tell you about their own experience of having a sniper's bullet rip through clothing without harming him.

Cecil Withers was lucky. Unlike so many, he survived the trenches and returned home to marry, have children and a career in the civil service. He lived a long life, honored by Britain and France. He was an ordinary bloke, but he left a great story.

Posted August 23, 2005
Column copyright © 2005 Ryan Taylor

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