A London Love Story

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The family lore about their grandparents’ World War I romance was sweet, but Lesley Miles discovered that what was left out of the tale told a much different story.

They met in a park in London. That was the story. My grandfather had been on the front, my grandmother a young woman going to college studying botany. When passing her sitting on a bench he said to her, “ Little girl, it looks like you’ve scuffed your shoes.” It was a simple romantic story, how they met and fell in love.

He went to New Zealand and on his way back was robbed in San Francisco. My grandmother then joined him traveling across the ocean. But how he arrived in London in the first place was never told.

What explained his life, the lives of his family -- that part of the story magically opened to me while driving in New Zealand along the two lane black asphalt highway through rolling hills of bright green grass and white sheep. My cell phone remarkably had service. We were on the South Island where he was born. I searched; William Leslie Miles. I knew nothing about the recent release of all records for the 1st World War, the war that was to end all wars.

A portrait of William Leslie Miles. (Courtesy of Lesley Miles)

But there it was -- 45 pages of microfilmed history, from his induction in the Veterinary corp in 1914 to his release in 1918. I had heard a bit about racing ostriches in Egypt and his love for horses, his ability to ride anything. He sang and cracked bawdy jokes and could recite hundreds of poems by heart.

What I didn’t know was that he didn’t sleep in the same room as my grandmother because he was afraid of waking in a state and killing her with his bare hands.

He served for a bit in Egypt. The tattered yellowed documents second and third pages confirmed that. He didn’t mention ever, to anyone, that his next post was Somme, France. Or that first day 40,000 were killed. Or that all his beloved horses were killed. Or that he was sent to London for shell shock and was sent back to the front in a month. Or that he was then sent to Verdun and was gassed, or was it that he got tuberculosis? Tuberculosis was the next entry in the hospital log. Then back to the front, finally to return to London.

So that was the missing part of the romantic story of how my grandparents met in a park in London.

The war to end all wars didn’t end anyone’s war.

With a Perspective, I am Lesley Miles.