First World War: Steve’s bid to retrace great-grandfather’s footsteps

10:12 06 August 2014

The Cearns family circa 1896 with father Jimmy and mother Elizabeth.  Fred, aged seven, is in the front row on the left while Percy is in front of his mother.

The Cearns family circa 1896 with father Jimmy and mother Elizabeth. Fred, aged seven, is in the front row on the left while Percy is in front of his mother.


Finding a letter in his grandmother’s drawer has led to one man retracing the steps his great-grandfather took more than 90 years earlier.

Steve Akehurst will be making the trip based on Percy's letterSteve Akehurst will be making the trip based on Percy's letter

Steve Akehurst discovered a 20-page letter written by Percy Cearns to his daughter Audrey in 1922, detailing a trip to France and Belgium to locate the exact spot where his brother Fred was killed in the First World War.

Now Steve intends to follow in his footsteps, visiting the same towns Percy did and write a similar letter.

“With the centenary of the war I thought it would be a good time to retrace Percy’s steps as he retraced Fred’s,” explained Steve, who lives in Finsbury Park.

“The main aim is to help me get a bit closer to my family history, but it will be interesting to see how many of the towns Percy and Fred served in have changed, and how much is still, nearly 100 years later, the same as Percy described in his letter.”

Fred CearnsFred Cearns

Fred, Percy and their 11 siblings grew up in Plaistow about the turn of the cen.

Their father, Jimmy, was involved in forming West Ham United and one of their brothers, Will, spent 15 years as a club director.

When war broke out, Percy was recruited as a despatch rider, delivering vital messages between military units and their headquarters.

Fred headed to the front line, losing his life at Passchendaele in 1917.

The letter from Percy Cearns to his daughter AudreyThe letter from Percy Cearns to his daughter Audrey

Five years later, Percy made the journey to find where his brother had fallen in action.

Steve said: “The letter is a really personal, and often surprisingly funny, account of his return to France and to find where his brother fell.

“But it’s also a really interesting window into the kind of places and towns in France and Belgium that thousands of young men like Fred and Percy served in during the war, and what it was like there in that immediate post-war period.”

Accompanied by a friend, Steve will use Percy’s letter – written in an elegant and descriptive style – as his guide.

He added: “The First World War was full of people like Percy and Fred, ordinary men from east London basically, who gave their life fighting or had it changed forever.”


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