A Tale of Two Brothers – and decades of waiting
Matt Limb OBE tells the story of a Lincolnshire man’s 30-year quest to return World War One medals he found back to one family – a journey that took him to the graves of the medal recipients, on the battlefields of France and Belgium.
I have spent much of my adult life crossing the English Channel to explore the battlefields of the Great War in France and Belgium, from the Somme to Flanders Fields. I have been in awe at what a generation achieved over a century ago, never waning or questioning the course. But in all that time I still question what the motivation was for a young man to ‘take the King’s shilling’ and stand in the line.
Was his calling just a great adventure, leaving Lincolnshire for the first time to travel overseas, or was it a sense of duty drilled into him at a young age in his village school when he looked at a map of the world to see vast swathes of red, which he was told was the British Empire? Or may it have been stories from a great uncle who came home from another war less than a generation earlier; a war even further afield, on another continent: the Boer War. Whatever the reason, they volunteered in their thousands, as they became known as the ‘Tommies’ that formed the famous World War One Pals Battalions.
Many of the Tommies paid the ultimate sacrifice, never to return home; their resting place in one of the thousands of war grave cemeteries that litter northern France and Belgium, which are immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for perpetuity and will be forever a little piece of England. The white Portland stone glinting in the late afternoon sun with the sound of birdsong keeps the Tommies’ memory alive, with families making pilgrimages to visit distant relatives they only know from stories handed down through the generations. I have visited many of these cemeteries, from the largest at Tyne Cot to the smallest, like Owl Trench close to the Somme battlefield. It would be easy to think nothing new could grab my attention, but there is always something to learn, or a mystery to solve. One such mystery was brought to my attention a few years ago and started here in Lincolnshire. It is a story that revealed a tale of two brothers – both took the King’s shilling and left home soon after the outbreak of the Great War, but neither would see Lincolnshire again.
It began with a telephone call from BBC Radio Lincolnshire asking if I could help after a regular listener had found some old medals and wanted to know more about them. It was Derek Richardson, who found the medals several years before whilst clearing an old and disused cupboard in his workshop. Whilst the medals remain items of great curiosity for Derek, he knew in his heart that they should be returned to the family in question. Then following a TV documentary on World War One he noticed the name, rank and service number engraved on the edge of each medal and believed they most likely belonged to a local lad from Lincolnshire.
With these details I was able to find they had indeed belonged to a local lad, but as well as campaign medals there was a Military Medal. The Military Medal (MM) was a decoration for British and Commonwealth forces, awarded for bravery in battle with the following requirement: ‘for acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire’ and was the other-ranks’ equivalent of the Military Cross.
Derek had contacted BBC Radio Lincolnshire in the hope that a listener would know a member of the family. We soon had our time on the radio and the search began, to find the family. To help in our quest, Kath Holland was recruited.
Kath had lived in the county all her life and was an expert genealogist with a depth of knowledge in local history across Lincolnshire.
My research found that the medals had been awarded to Private Charles George Vinter. Born in approx 1896, he enlisted soon after the outbreak of war, serving first with the Lincolnshire Regiment and later in the Essex Regiment.
He originated from the Boston area and worked on a farm before joining up. Sadly, Charles died of injuries he sustained in August 1918 and is buried in a Commonwealth War Grave close to where he fell in France. In addition to Charles’s Military Medal, he was awarded the 1914-1920 British War Medal and the Victory Medal – and Derek had found all three.
After passing this information to Kath she started work on the family tree. Kath soon found that Charles’s father was born around 1853, in the Wood Enderby area of Lincolnshire. He lived until his late eighties and died sometime in 1941 – his name was Fred Vinter. Additionally, Kath found that Charles had a younger brother called Stephen, who also joined the army in World War One. But more amazing, Derek, inspired by the ongoing research, again searched his workshop and found another medal – this time the 1918 Victory Medal, which we soon found belonged to Stephen Vinter.
Stephen died in Belgium in the spring of 1918. Like his brother he is buried in a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery. In turn, both brothers are remembered locally on the War Memorial in the churchyard at Old Leake, which at the time of joining the Army was their home.
As I continued my research I found, in the 1911 census, Charles is shown as a 14-year-old farmworker and his brother Stephen is listed as a 13-year-old. Both were born in Havering, Essex. But in 1911 they lived at Dovecote Farm, New Leake with their parents Fred (then aged 49) and Harriet (aged 43). Also living in the farmhouse was George Belcher, shown as a waggoner on the farm, plus a 17-year-old also called George, listed as the second waggoner on the farm.
With this background to the family, it took some extensive research and dedicated hard work by Kath Holland before she successfully identified the closest living relative, Mr Andy Vinter, who was living in London when he was contacted.
Andy knew nothing of the brothers, their war service, or the Military Medal, which all came as a great surprise.
Following some planning, the story was broadcast live on BBC Radio Lincolnshire with a full hour dedicated to the Vinter Brothers and their medals; in the closing moments of that hour, Derek’s wish came true as he handed the medals, now professionally cleaned with new medal ribbons, back to the family. They were gratefully received by Andy Vinter.
For Derek, it would have been easy to have walked away with the medals safely returned to the family and seen his quest as over. But the final part of this remarkable story was still to come, with both Kath and Derek asking if it would be possible to travel to France and visit the graves of both Charles and Stephen.
It had been a long journey for Derek in terms of time; from finding the Vinter brothers’ medals to reuniting them with the family had taken over 30 years. But for Derek, the journey to France and Belgium would prove far more emotional, as the plan was to be at the grave of Charles Vinter on the anniversary of his death.
It was on a summer’s afternoon that Derek, accompanied by his wife Mary, along with Kath and her husband Brian, began the final journey. Unfortunately, Andy Vinter could not make the battlefield tour, but the medals were temporarily back in Derek’s safe hands.
With the comfort of today’s high-speed rail and road networks, in just a few hours we were sitting at our hotel, then over an evening meal we chatted about the coming days. The following morning was spent on the Somme battlefield exploring and trying to understand the biggest battle of 1916, one in which both Vinter brothers were involved. “It is the sheer scale that is so hard to take in, so many young men paying the price,” said Mary as we looked at the actions of The First Day of the Somme, standing by the Thiepval Memorial. As the late afternoon fell, all agreed that to look closely at the Battle of the Somme helped you understand what it was that Charles and Stephen had endured over a century ago after leaving Lincolnshire.
The sun shone brightly the following morning as we made our way to the small Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery on the edge of the village of Franvillers. It was the 97th anniversary of the death of Private Charles George Vinter, MM. He was aged just 22 and serving with the Essex Regiment when he died. No record or citation exists for his Military Medal, so we will never know what brave deed he carried out to have been awarded such a medal.
His grave sits proudly at the end of the row in the shade of a small and well-trimmed hedge. As we all gathered, a quiet fell across the small cemetery as emotions ran high.
After reading from the regimental war diary and explaining where it was that Charles had fought on the battlefield nearby, Derek stood with Charles’s medals in his hand. It was right that he should place the poppy cross on his grave, then make a short reading at his graveside before we all bowed our heads in the traditional two-minute silence. But none of us were prepared for the church clock ringing at 11am as our silence came to an end, sending a shudder down your neck and spine.
After a look around the cemetery, Derek commented, “I cannot believe how well we keep the gardens and flowers in the cemeteries. I guess it is not much to ask for what they gave, but the cemeteries are so beautiful.” As we left, part of a long journey had come to an end for Derek, but there was still one more visit.
It was a two-hour drive north into Belgium to find Charles’s brother, Stephen. Near the town of Poperinge, we found
Dozinghem Cemetery. Here, amongst more than 3,000 war graves, lay Stephen.
Early in 1918, he was evacuated to a nearby field hospital by ambulance train, suffering from wounds he sustained in the fighting around the Belgian town of Ypres. Sadly, he never recovered and died on 22nd March 1918. Again, thoughts and emotions raced through our minds as we paid our respects at the graveside.
It was a short drive into the town of Ypres. Soon Derek stood before the buglers for his part in the Last Post ceremony, held every evening at 8pm under the Menin Gate, to remember the fallen. Derek took the reading that evening from Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
As his words echoed under the Menin Gate, silence fell on a sombre and thoughtful crowd. Derek then walked across the cobbled road and placed a poppy wreath in memory of both Charles and Stephen; in turn, both brothers were remembered in that evening’s short history reading.
Derek’s journey was finally over; with help from Kath Holland he had achieved his aim of returning the medals to the family. I salute him for that and his endeavour in not giving up the quest. But I think his days in France and Belgium, accompanied by Kath, Mary and Brian, brought home just what medals and ribbons are truly about.
This article is dedicated to Kath Holland, without whom today’s Vinter family would never have been found and the medals would never have been returned. Sadly, Kath passed away recently following a short illness.
Photographs: Matt Limb OBE