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For families of soldiers lost in WWI, a legacy of sacrifice

A century ago, the conflict then known as the Great War was finally coming to an end, after four years and 17 million deaths. Among those who fought in many of the most important battles was the great-grandfather of special correspondent Malcolm Brabant. He shares a personal report on the legacy of the war that was supposed to end all wars.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    It was the 11th hour, on the 11th day, of the 11th month.

    This Sunday marks 100 years since the end of World War I. At the time, it was believed to be the war to end all wars, four years of conflict, 17 million people killed.

    For most, it is a piece of history, but for many families, the loss continues to resonate.

    "NewsHour" special correspondent Malcolm Brabant is part of one such family, and he brings us this very personal report about his great-grandfather.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In my mom's modest home in Eastern England, there is a gallery of those taken early, her first grandchild, her husband and, on the fireplace, the grandfather she never met, Corporal Charles Swansbury of the Royal Fusiliers Regiment.

  • Patricia Brabant:

    My mother was very proud of him, and I am. He's the family hero, isn't it? I think he was very brave.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Before enlisting in the British Army, Charles Swansbury worked for the Metropolitan Railway Company in North London. It's virtually certain he drove this very engine, saved from the scrapyards when steam died out, and now operational again on a Heritage line.

    Swansbury never went beyond the railyard. He was a shunter, repositioning the engines and carriages in the sidings. Today's engineer, Alex Alder, entirely understands why Charles Swansbury volunteered when war broke out.

  • ALEX ALDER, Epping Ongar Railway:

    Doing this job day in, day out every day, for some, it must have been very exciting. For the majority, it must have been extremely boring, extremely dull. You were given this job, you were stuck with it for life, and there was no progress.

    So to be offered the opportunity to go over the sea and do something honorable and prove yourself as a respectable figure in your family, for some, that must have been a huge opportunity.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Swansbury was 26, with three children. Railmen, like coal miners, were vital for the war effort, and weren't required to enlist. But he was blamed for a number of derailments, and was in trouble at work.

  • Patricia Brabant:

    Don't put it in.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    It's the truth, mom.

  • Patricia Brabant:

    No, you can omit that.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    No, you can't, because it's the truth. It's out there.

  • Patricia Brabant:

    It's not fair to do that.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    It is, mom. It's the truth.

  • Patricia Brabant:

    It's like where people are digging dirt out of everybody these days. No, that's not right.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But…

  • Patricia Brabant:

    No, that's not fair.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Carried along on a wave of patriotism and propaganda, Swansbury headed for the front lines in Belgium and Northern France, and four years of carnage.

    The volunteers are venerated as lions, led by donkeys, the generals.

    Historian Glyn Prysor follows a line of training trenches near my home west of London. How should history judge the donkeys, the Allied commanders?

  • GLYN PRYSOR, Historian:

    They were attempting to fight a modern war without the understanding of how a modern war worked. Many of the things that they tried to do in the early years of the conflict, they didn't have the equipment or the weaponry or the technology to succeed.

    And so what you ended up with were, were really huge casualty numbers, for minimal gains in terms of yardage and territory.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Nowhere epitomizes that futility more than the Somme region of France, where Charles Swansbury had his first real taste of action.

    On the first day of the Somme, 20,000 British troops were killed, 40,000 were wounded, and only three square miles of territory was captured.

    Across Britain today, there are art installations representing the rivers of blood.

    David Carter is a specialist in the history of Swansbury's regiment.

  • DAVID CARTER, Historian:

    They were told, form a line, march slowly forward, and you will be OK. Unfortunately, the Germans hadn't read that part of the script, and were ready with the machine guns, having come out of their deep trenches.

  • Patricia Brabant:

    And these were only young kids, weren't they? I mean, how would you feel if Lukas went?

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    My 19-year-old son, Lukas, is walking hallowed ground, where 800 troops from Newfoundland in Canada went over the top of the trenches on July the 1st. The next day, only 68 answered the roll call.

    LUKAS BRABANT, Son of Malcolm Brabant: If you look at the devastation of life, how many lives were lost here, just imagine, with the weapons and the technology that we have now, just imagine the millions that could die if something like this breaks out again.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Swansbury's unit was one of the few to capture their objective on the Somme, but they lost one in four of their men.

  • DAVID CARTER:

    From reading letters and diaries men have written, they only knew what was happening in a very small area around them, probably a couple hundred yards either side of them.

    They would see their friends being mown down. I suspect it was only afterwards the realization dawned of what an escape some of them had had. And some of the psychological problems probably cut in years afterward.

  • Patricia Brabant:

    This is a card that mom — my grand-dad sent to my mom.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Oh. It's heartbreaking, isn't it?

  • Patricia Brabant:

    Yes.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    "Please send me back my daddy."

    In 1917, tanks broke the stalemate of trench warfare. Swansbury fought alongside them at Cambrai in France and Poelkapelle in Belgium, where this replica was built by Johan Vanbeselaere.

  • Man:

    There were trenches. There were automatic guns, barbed wire, and at such a tie, they could go straight through the barbed wire. They could pass a trench, and they were immune for automatic guns.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The cyclists are passing along a ridge near Poelkapelle that was held by the Germans. This was part of the infamous quagmire known as Passchendaele.

  • David Carter:

    If you fell off the duck board, the chances were, you would drown. It was so bad that, if men did fall in, then actually getting them out was incredibly difficult, and, often, they didn't bother.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In June 1918, Corporal Charles Swansbury was awarded Britain's third-highest honor for bravery.

    Historian David Carter believes he earned the military medal during an attack on Lug Farm. We identified the general location in Northern France, but the farm is no longer there.

    Swansbury's story has been hard to document precisely because a building containing his and other records was bombed during the Second World War.

  • David Carter:

    It could have been capturing machine gun posts. It could have been for the way in which he conducted himself during the course of the battle. But, unfortunately, the citations were burned with the medal rolls in 1942, so we will never know.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    By this stage, the dynamic of the war had completely changed because of the involvement of the United States, which entered the conflict in 1917.

    Under the leadership of General John Pershing, on the left, American troops fresh and enthusiastic, demoralized the Germans, who by now had been forced to send old men and boys to the front.

  • Glyn Prysor:

    They were a really effective fighting force, and the Germans really had no answer to the overwhelming weight of American firepower.

    The battles were incredibly bloody, about 120,000 casualties from just over a million men in the field. But the Americans played a significant part in the overall Allied advance that led to victory.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    With victory just eight weeks away, Charles Swansbury's luck ran out here in Northern France in September 1918.

    Charles Swansbury's unit was trying to create a whole system of trenches by linking up shell hulls. And during this period, they suddenly got shelled really heavily.

  • David Carter:

    He was identified as being killed on the 5th on the memorial, which means that somebody came back and said, I saw him die.

  • Patricia Brabant:

    My grandmother told me that she had two or three dreams about my granddad. She was walking backward, and over at this church, the doors closed. She knew that he was dead when — before — when they came with the telegram.

  • Man:

    Going down with the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

  • Audience:

    We will remember them.

  • Man:

    Lest we forget.

  • Audience:

    Lest we forget.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    And so to St. Mary's Church in Harrow, close to Swansbury's former home, where men from the parish will be honored this Sunday, 100 years after the armistice, in a commemoration organized by Michael Chandler.

  • Man:

    I think it's important to remember their contribution. It took away a whole generation.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The photograph will help worshipers put a face to a name engraved next to the altar alongside his younger brother Frank, who died in 1918 after losing his legs.

  • Patricia Brabant:

    Terrible. I mean, you don't want each other to be gun fodder, do you?

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Those are his medals.

  • Patricia Brabant:

    Where on earth did you get these?

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Sadly, they're replicas.

  • Patricia Brabant:

    Yes.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    OK?

  • Patricia Brabant:

    Yes.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Before leaving the battlefields, we had one remaining duty at the Ploegsteert Memorial for those with no known grave.

    Was he blown to pieces or lost in the mud? We will never know.

  • Lukas  Brabant:

    I think it's heartwarming to see his name up there. Seeing all the thousands of names up here and going to all the unmarked graves has really given me a perspective of the waste of life that happened during the war.

    I don't think anyone has learned anything from the past 100 years. And I think, in a lot of ways, it still could happen again. I think the world is more divided than it has been in a very long time, and something like this could very easily happen again.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Charles Swansbury fought for the circle of life, not the circle of death. His generation's sacrifices molded today's attitudes.

    We disdain deference. We don't trust politicians. We question everything. And perhaps those values will save our children.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Flanders.

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