Thursday, 30 August 2012

WDYTYA? Series 9 - Patrick Stewart

It was another military themed Who Do You Think You Are? last night with renowned actor Sir Patrick Stewart, famous for playing various Shakespearean roles, Professor Charles Xavier of the X-Men, and, of course, Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise.

Patrick wanted to begin his research with the military records of his father, Alfred. Due to Alfred being posted abroad during WWII, Patrick didn't really get to know him until he was around five years old. As an adult Patrick had heard that Alfred had had a distinguished military career, and now wanted to use his WDYTYA? experience to look into this in more detail.

The first stop was the Imperial War Museum in London. Alfred's service record showed that he first joined the Army in 1925, two weeks after the birth of his first child. After completing his service, part of which was in the regimental police, he re-enlisted at the start of WWII. 

Alfred's first real experience of the horrors of war occurred at Abbeville in France in 1940. His battalion was met by well trained and efficient German Panzer divisions. The town and surrounding areas were heavily bombed, and the battalion witnessed crowds of refugees fleeing from the destruction. Not long after this incident Alfred and his battalion were evacuated from France as the Germans continued their relentless advance towards Paris.

On his return home a newspaper article revealed that Alfred had suffered from shell-shock whilst at the front line, and that the symptoms had remained with him when he returned to England. This suddenly brought context to the angry father that Patrick remembered from his childhood.

Alfred's war was not over, however, as he later joined the Parachute Regiment. During the years of 1940-1942 he had been promoted from a Corporal, to Sergeant, to Sergeant-Major. He was posted to the South of France as part of Operation Dragoon in 1944. This operation, in conjunction with the D-Day landings, had a huge impact on the outcome of the war. Patrick visited the area that Alfred had parachuted into, and even the exact buildings that had been used as headquarters.

The final part of the programme involved Patrick investigating shell-shock, now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The effects on some servicemen were tragic, and involved some people being classified as incurable, and being kept in asylums. In general, nightmares, violent outbursts, and alcohol abuse were commonly found amongst sufferers of shell-shock. As a child Patrick had witnessed Alfred being drunk and violent towards his mother, and while not excusing the behaviour in any way, he could now understand that there were extenuating circumstances to explain his father's quick temper.

Sir Patrick Stewart's Who Do You Think You Are? story is another example, one of many, of how war affected those who lived and fought through it. It changed the men who risked their lives, and as a result relationships with family members were altered forever.

This episode of WDYTYA? can be viewed on the BBC iPlayer for the next two months.

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