This interview was the highest viewed Living History interview and it began the series in great style.
My first guests today are author Geoff Le Pard and his brother Gordon and the story about their grandfather Percy Francis.
In a display cabinet, a few feet from where I am sitting is a small porcelain statue of Joan of Arc. Whilst it is over one hundred years old, it is of no particular value, especially as the head has, at some time, been knocked off and crudely stuck back on. But it has been treasured in our family for many years – and this is her story.
Percy Francis was fascinated by flying. Today it would not be unusual, but this was 1911. Powered flight was only a few years old and the primitive machines that clawed their way into the sky were incredibly dangerous. But Percy loved it. By 1911 he was by his own account ‘involved in aeronautical research’, and in 1912 he was an official of the London Aero Club helping to run the first London Air Show.
Forward two years and when war was declared he naturally wanted to join the embryonic Royal Flying Corps. However hardly anybody had any idea of what aircraft could do in war and he was told to wait. But all his friends were joining up so he decided to join the army anyway. When one friend bet him he would never wear a kilt, he joined the Seaforth Highlanders – one of the ‘Ladies from hell’ as the Germans were to call them.
By November 1914 he was in France and, during the cold winter of 1914-15 he turned his ingenuity to making underwear – as the uniform didn’t include any to wear under the kilt. This was perhaps his only failure. More successful was the film projector he found, and for many month he ran the ‘Only Cinema at the Front’, as it was called on the posters. French films could easily be played as, in the days of silent film, all you needed was someone to translate the titles when they appeared.
In the spring of 1915 the Seaforth’s were one of the regiments involved in the battle of Neuve Chapelle, one of the first big trench battles of the war. The regiment played a particularly gallant part, so they commissioned a war artist, Joseph Gray, to depict the scene when the Seaforth’s advanced. Percy was chosen to be the model for all the soldiers depicted, walking, shooting, shouting encouragement. We still possess a sketch of Percy, the highland soldier, that Joseph Gray gave him, and he is recognisable at least four times in the finished paintings!
For one particularly hazardous expedition he was offered the choice between a military medal or immediate commission, he chose the latter and became Lieutenant Percy Francis. He didn’t remain long as an officer in the trenches but rapidly managed to get transferred to where he had long wanted to be – the Royal Flying Corps.
It was while he was back in England, doing his pilot training (he didn’t need to learn to fly, but rather become acquainted with the military aircraft of the day), that he was arrested as a spy. Officers didn’t need to wear uniform when not on duty and he was sitting in a London park reading a magazine. He had fair hair, close cropped to fit under his flying helmet, and someone thought he looked German. A crowd gathered and a policeman had to take him into protective custody.
Back in France he joined his squadron, whose job was mapping enemy positions. Flying low and slow over the trenches, whilst the observer took photographs. The average life span of a pilot in those days was thirteen weeks; he did it for over eighteen months. He was never shot down – he seemed to have regarded the enemy as a minor irritation and the aircraft he was flying were much more dangerous.
He was right, in early 1918 he was going home on leave and was offered the choice between taking the troop ship home or flying a plane back to England. He naturally chose the latter and set off across the Channel. Then the fog came down.
For three days there was no news, it was assumed that his aircraft had been lost at sea, then a gamekeeper walking on the cliffs near Dover found the crashed aircraft. Though he was badly injured, Percy made a full recovery.
Percy received one or two speeding tickets including this one for exceeding ten miles per hour.
But what, you will be asking yourself if you remember the beginning of this tale, has Joan of Arc got to do with it all. Shortly after arriving in France, Percy found the statue of St. Joan in a shelled church. He repaired it and took it with him wherever he went as a good luck charm. As you may have realised his career in the war, from ordinary soldier at the front – to officer at the front – to officer in the Royal Flying Corps, took him into more and more dangerous situations.
In protecting our grandfather, Percy Francis, St. Joan worked overtime.
My thanks to Geoff and to Gordon for kicking off this new series in such style.. Percy sounds like a wonderful character and I would have loved to have met and heard his story first hand.
About Geoff Le Pard
Geoff Le Pard (not Geoffrey, except to his mother) was born in 1956 and is a lawyer who saw the light. He started writing (creatively) in 2006 following a summer school course. Being a course junkie he had spells at Birkbeck College, twice at Arvon and most recently at Sheffield Hallam where he achieved an MA in Creative Writing.
And what did he learn?
That they are great fun, you meet wonderful people but the best lessons come from the unexpected places. He has a line of books waiting to be published but it has taken until now to find the courage to go live.
He blogs at http://geofflepard.com/ on anything and everything. His aim is for each novel to be in a different style and genre. Most people have been nice about his writing (though when his brother’s dog peed on the manuscript he was editing, he did wonder) but he knows the skill is in seeking and accepting criticism. His career in the law has helped prepare him.
Geoff’s latest book Salisbury Square.
Jerzy Komaza is adept at turning a blind eye. He has allowed his father’s beatings of his sister, Maria, to continue for years. Yet one hot summer day he finally snaps, and it is Maria who sends him away from their home in Białystok in rural Poland, fearing the consequences if he stays. Desperate and unsure, Jerzy heads for London where his old friend Jan has promised him work.
At first he is completely disorientated. Worse, there’s no sign of Jan. Feeling lost and adrift in the strange city, Jerzy overhears a young woman’s cries. Memories of his sister stir him into action and he intervenes.
The woman is Suzie Thomas, a drug addict dependent on local thug Paul Rogers for her supplies and for whom she turns tricks. Rogers also runs gangs of workmen around the city, and Jan works for him. Gradually Jerzy is dragged into Suzie’s world, a violent dog-eat-dog existence of the underclass living next to but separate from London’s affluent citizens.
Jan has his own problems with Rogers, and when his cousin Ola Nowak is slashed with a knife while trying to sort out Jan’s debt, he is bent on revenge. Jerzy is torn between stopping his friend and, because of his own growing hatred of Rogers’ casual violence towards Suzie, helping him.
Suzie’s family are hunting for her. Her grandparents hear she has moved to London and seek her out. In doing so they too find themselves pulled into Rogers’ orbit. As the heat builds and the rain pours down, various forces begin to drag these desperate individuals together into a violent confrontation. And into this mix comes Lech Komoza, Jerzy’s half-brother intent on his own violent retribution.
This story contains elements of revenge, love, the clash of classes and cultures, the isolation of large cities and the single-minded determination to survive. Set against a backdrop of one of the most affluent cities in the Western world, it is a modern parable about the lure of redemption and how hope can be corrupted by despair.
Also by Geoff Le Pard
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About Gordon Le Pard
I am a retired archaeologist, who used to work for Dorset County County, where I mapped the wrecks off the coast. A maritime archaeologist who cannot swim is unusual, but there.
I have written a great deal, on many diverse topics, from the works of an arts and crafts artist, to a fossilised beaver, from early aerial photographs to medieval sundials (the last my father considered the most boring think I had ever written).
I read a great deal, and remember a heck of a lot, this actually has a downside, if you have difficulty in forgetting! For example I will often check the end of a story to make sure it ends happily, who wants a miserable story running about in your head for the next decade or so.
My wife and I are reenactors, Regency or Victorian, and I will try most of the odd things I reconstruct. I have limits, but not many!
If you head over to Gordon’s blog you will find some fascinating articles and one in particular took my fancy. https://gordonlepard.wordpress.com/2016/08/17/going-for-a-dip-dressed-or-undressed/
With our weather in the UK and Ireland I am very tempted to resort to the bathing attire of the bathers of the previous centuries… but were some of them actually naked in our frozen coastal waters?
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If you have a story to tell about your family history or events that you feel have impacted your life, you will find details in this post. Along with other ways you can promote your blog and other creative work.
Thanks for joining us today and your feedback would be very much appreciated and also if you could hit a few share buttons on your way out that would be amazing. Thanks from all of us.. Percy, Geoff and Gordon..