Remembering remembrance…

The poignant CWGC war graves of those British soldiers who died liberating the town (Bavay cemetery). They so nearly survived the war.

My earliest memory of Remembrance Sunday involves my mother at the wheel of her green Morris Traveller, a redoutable half-timbered vehicle, half car, half cupboard. We lived in Kirkhill then, it was Sunday and we were late for church in Fortrose and so she was driving faster than normal. We came round a bend and there, to our mutual horror, was the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the war memorial at Tore. Dignified veterans scattered as we unintentionally roared through the centre of the parade at precisely 11am. Mum was so mortified she wept – but she kept her foot and head hard down for fear of being recognised as a respected local teacher. ‘Oh, what would your grandpa have thought?’ she gasped.

This was over fifty years ago now. The road layout by the church has been changed to correct the blind bend, and the church is no longer even a church. Things change. Life has moved on and yet, at this grey time of year, as autumn crumbles into the cold earth of winter, we continue to remember those who have died as a result of war.

Evie, daughters Libba and Numpy my mother, Tom

The Armistice is commemorated with even greater solemnity in France than it is here. 11th November is a national holiday. In Bavay, a small town devastated by two world wars, children lay bouquets adorned with tricolor ribbons. The difference is invasion. Channel Islands apart, the UK did not suffer the agony and humiliation of military overthrow and control by a hostile foreign power. In France they remember the fallen but also the relief of a double liberation just 26 years apart.

Tom, my mother’s father, was in Bavay for the very end of the war. Even though he was then married, the last year of WWI was the hardest of all for him: he returned from convalescence after gassing to find his Indian cavalry brothers had all been sent to Mesopotamia. He was now an Assistant Provost Marshal (a military policeman) for a division and could not accompany them. He would never see his Indian cavalry friend Amar Singh or his right hand man Arjan Singh – or any of them – ever again.

The statue of Risaldar Major Amar Singh near Takkapur in Punjab, with my poppy cross.

During the retreat from the Somme in March 1918, Tom held back men fleeing in chaos at gunpoint and tried to stem the flood of desperate refugees. These scenes remained with him as recurring nightmares to the end of his life.

When the Armistice was announced on November 11th he was one of the first to know via a signal he then copied out by hand and distributed to the maires within the area.

Talking with the pupils of Amar Singh High School

How do I know this? Back in 2018 during my Armistice Day visit to Bavay, an elderly lady knocked on the door of the Auberge de Bellevue where I was staying. She was the grand-daughter of Gaston Derome, the maire of Bavay, who wrote my grandfather the thank you letter which led me to Bavay on the first place. She handed over a cardboard box. Inside were Gaston’s diaries.

Short of time before my departure I found the entry for 11th November. This paper fluttered out at his feet – and I bent and picked up Tom’s note to Gaston giving details of how the Armistice was to be conducted.

Gaston’s war as a civilian was arguably worse than Tom’s as a soldier. Widowed just before the war, and with four young children, he was arrested, threatened with execution more than once, imprisoned and interned.

Tom rode into Bavay on 7th November and the battle to liberate the little town lasted two days. A shell exploded at Gaston’s house, narrowly avoiding both Gaston and Tom. I have stood beside the door where it happened.

Tom’s name in Gaston’s cramped handwriting – a little misspelled but no doubt about it- appears under the words le prevôt maréchal – the provost marshal

In a way the writing of Major Tom’s War has been a personal journey of commemoration. I hope the paperback will soon reach the descendants of Amar Singh and Arjan Singh in India, and, one day, once the French translation is complete, of Gaston Derome in Bavay.

Over 74,000 Indian Army soldiers died in WWI. And of the 40 million casualties worldwide, 10 million were civilians. Lest we forget.

Vee Walker’s award-winning novel Major Tom’s War can be ordered now from the publishers Kashi House (, Waterstones and Amazon RRP £9.99.

WARNING – if you have read Major Tom’s War these images may make you cry. Gaston Derome’s family photographs circa 1902 – 1914

‘Look closely and as the children build their sandcastles, the battleships are massing on the horizon line…’

Madame Catherine Telle, Gaston’s grand-daughter (Catherine’s father was Alphonse Derome, Gaston’s second child and elder son) kindly allowed me to copy photographs from her family photograph albums on a recent visit to Bavay.

Gaston loved technology and clearly adored to take photographs. They show a privileged, wealthy and happy family at leisure – so poignant when, as readers of Major Tom’s War will know, fate has other plans in store for Gaston, Louise and their four children.


At heart the Derome family were farmers. Their agri-business, the Engrais Derome, was already seeing some success in the earliest years of the 20th century, but it was still rooted in the fertile family land in and around Bavay. This old lady (possibly Gaston’s mother) is feeding poultry.


Beautiful Louise Derome has had her first child, a little girl, Thérèse. Note the wallpaper, the bassinet with lace hangings, the quilt, the beautiful bed and the vase of flowers.


Gaston looks as thrilled as any father with his little firstborn. This would have been taken in the garden of their Rue des Juifs town house.


Gaston breaking up ground, perhaps in his vegetable patch, much to the delight of a group of chicks.


Louise and Thérèse enjoying a quiet moment on the daisy-studded lawn – possibly even a picnic in the woods.


Gaston on horseback. And the horse’s name was…


…unbelievably, Daisy. Why his horse A. has an English name and B. the same name as one of Tom’s horses history does not relate, but this is long before Tom and Gaston met.


Louise (or is it their young English friend Watsie, the future ceramicist Dorothy Watson?) with Thérèse and baby Alphonse. Could it have been Watsie who named the horse Daisy?


Rather a stilted family shot taken in Rue des Juifs – the wicker parasol over Madame Derome senior is rather splendid. Louise looks as though she is expecting again, probably her third child, Léon.


Business is booming and a huge new factory is being built. This is likely to be the building used as a billet by troops of both sides during the war, and where Tom spends the nights of 7/8/9 November 1918.


This photograph was taken near Volvic – was Louise perhaps taking the waters there after the birth of her third or fourth child?


Another good portrait of Léonie, right, but the identity of the other two family ladies is not known. No Louise, unless she was taking the photograph.



These photographs taken in the garden at Rue des Juifs show the younger children entertaining themselves but Thérèse is now clearly wearing black and the adults look sombre. Was this taken just after the funeral of Louise, who sadly died in childbirth?


The clouds of war are gathering on the horizon. There is a sense of the family pulling together to take their children for a healthy seaside break on a windy day just before the calamity unfolds. Alphonse has scrambled up the wall, Léon following suit.


The four children – Thérèse, another cousin, possibly little Marie-Félicie, Léon (on the sandcastle) and Alphonse face a rough incoming tide.

Beyond Gaston’s children and their cousins, battleships mass on the horizon.


The following week, the First World War will begin and their little lives will be changed forever.

Major Tom’s War: from the National Army Museum to Armistice 100

‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old…’

It’s a cliché to describe any moment in life as a whirlwind but it is also hard to think of a better expression for the last two hectic months.

The launch…

The eve of my grandparent’s 100th wedding anniversary seems much longer ago than September 20th 2018. I don’t think I will ever forget the moment when Parmjit Singh, my commissioning editor at Kashi House, proudly presented me with the First Edition of Major Tom’s War for the very first time, just minutes before the launch took place. About 100 friends and family members and – something I am having to become accustomed to – complete strangers came together to celebrate the end of an unusual book’s ten year journey towards publication. Jassa Ahuwalia made the whole thing so easy and I enjoyed the evening at the National Army Museum very much.

As I dropped off to sleep that night, my hand resting on the silky grey covers of my book, my actual, real, wonderful book, I thought, goodness, this is the best thing I have created since my two daughters. It was a moment of perfect happiness.

Of course in the cool light of day like any new mother I examined my offspring with anxiety, ready to seize on any tiny blemish, and of course there are small things which need to be tweaked and adjusted when this long and complex book moves into a second edition. This is after all a first novel not just for me, but for my gallant publishing team at Kashi House too. The reviews have been very enthusiastic and kind thus far and I will be forever grateful to all the pioneering readers who have invested in a First Edition and who can say, with pride, that they were among the very first to read Major Tom’s War. I am signing as many as I can – if you would like one, please get in touch via the website at

What happens next…

The book is here to stay. People are now reading it all over the world, with particularly intriguing early success in India. It is a heady and stressful sensation now the words which have been in my head for so long are out there taking on a life of their own. I know that people are longing to read it in France too but first we have to find a French publisher willing to take it on. Several irons in the fire there, so things are looking hopeful.

Bavay is a real place…

I have just returned from an extraordinary fortnight spent in France for the Armistice 100 commemorations. This was my fourth visit to the little Franco-Belgian border town of Bavay, home to the mayor Gaston Derome, one of the book’s main viewpoint characters, and also intimately connected with Tom Westmacott, my Indian Army cavalry officer and APM grandfather. I have made friends for life in Bavay, and all because one conscientious man wrote a thank you letter to another, and that other (with a little help from his wife) kept it. Whenever I walk across the Grande Place from Gaston’s Mairie to the deceptively saintly Queen Brunehaut’s column, I can hear horses’ hooves on cobbles, although no cobbles now remain.

My day job is as a museums and heritage consultant, and the town asked me over two years ago to create an eight-panel exhibition for them about Major Tom’s War for the Armistice 100 commemorations. I called it ‘Grande Guerre, Petits Destins’ (literally Great War, Small Lives) which may well be the title of the novel in its French edition, which we hope to see published soon.

I made the exhibition a comparative study of Tom and Gaston and in doing so realised that there were more similarities between these two mild-mannered men than I had at first thought. Both wore spectacles, both faced and triumphed over personal tragedy immediately before the war, both put their lives at risk for the sake of others, both believed more in the power of kindness than violence. Two ordinary men doing their best to survive extraordinary times.

The exhibition was attended by over 600 people in the seven days it was open, including classes from almost every local school, and is now the property of the town, for use in schools, libraries etc. Almost every child in Bavay now knows the name of Gaston Derome. Before I wrote Major Tom’s War, none of them did. Gaston is important to the book but also to France. His story of courage rehabilitates the WWI areas of occupation whose inhabitants are still sometimes cruelly nicknamed even within their own country as ‘les Boches du Nord’.

My cousin and sister and their families joined me at the end of my fortnight in Bavay to commemorate the 11th November, so all three of Tom’s surviving grandchildren were present. We also were most touched that the great-great-nephew of one of the dead buried in the cemetery came all the way from England by motorbike to pay his respects. My friends Loic and Martine came dressed in period costume, Loic as the priest-interpreter, Tom’s friend Luneau.

Bavay’s mighty procession, led by the town band, marched around the war memorials, the dignitaries wearing tricolor sashes and our family members wearing poppies, which are most coveted in France and should be sold there set off in the drizzle. We stopped at every war memorial in the town, including one to the resistance fighters of both wars, who have their own hymn. It all ended after an hour in Bavay’s bleak little cemetery, now bedecked with red, white and blue flowers as bouquet after bouquet and our own simple wooden poppy crosses were placed on the graves of the 12 men who lost their lives in Bavay either at the very beginning or in the last days of the war.

As we stood beside them, hoarse from repeated singing of the God Save the Queen, the Marseillaise and, in a touching tribute to Tom’s country of birth, the Indian National Anthem Jana Gana Mana, pondered on the lottery of war which meant that our grandfather came through the liberation of the town largely unscathed, while Kev Disspain’s great-great-uncle Clarence did not. Clarence Lionel Disspain was one of the ‘six men of the North Staffordshire Regiment’ Tom found dead, still warm, felled by a shell blast as they left the billet (in Gaston’s factory) which Tom himself was about to enter.

We were commemorating the end of a brutal war in a small town and in a small-scale way, not at one of the huge events at the Arc de Triomphe (where the lack of a high-ranking British politician or member of the Royal Family was noted with dismay) or Ypres or the Cenotaph. This was a conflict which derailed millions of small lives and it was good to stand there quietly, shoulder to shoulder with the ordinary townsfolk, as in the person of today’s mayor, Alain Frehaut, they said a genuine and heartfelt thank you for their liberation 100 years before.

And then we slaked our parched throats with champagne, and toasted ‘a la France, aux Allies, et a la Victoire’ – just as Tom did 100 years before.

In my next two blogs, I will be looking through Gaston Derome’s photograph album and following in the footsteps of Tom and the Indian Cavalry on the Western Front