John Giles,Founder of The Western Front Association A Tribute to both John and Margery Giles
Above and below: John and Margery at their beloved home, The Mill, in Ash, Kent
John and Margery pose in front of the clock presented to him when he retired as Chairman of The Western Front Association. The money had been collected by voluntary donation from the members. They were, as you can see from their smiles, delighted with the gift.
John Giles (1921-1991) was brought up on stories of the Great War from his father, who was a regular soldier with the Queens Own Royal Kent Regiment at Mons and Le Cateau in 1914, losing a leg at the latter engagement. Perhaps as a result of his experiences and wound he was not a kind father but through his wartime tales and songs around the family piano his young son John resolved never to forget the fighting spirit and sacrifice of the armed forces on the Western Front, nor the terrible psychological effect that the fighting had on his father. John would in later years seek to remember and honour those who took part by writing three photographic “Then and Now”
books, penning articles for newspapers and magazines, leading tours of the battlefields, and eventually, founding the Western Front Association. Whilst working for his father’s grocery business John enlisted into the Royal Artillery Territorial Army in 1939. He was promoted to Sergeant and shortly afterwards commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers. He eventually found himself seconded to the Kings African Rifles in Kenya and typically frustrated by a relatively quiet posting (occasionally livened up by chasing the occasional rhinoceros in a truck — and being knocked flying by a furious beast on at least one occasion) he wrote to his brother serving in North Africa expressing his wish to be involved in the fighting only to be told “don’t be an idiot!”. John met his young wife to be Margery MacLeod in 1939 but they were soon parted by the war. Despite being buried under the rubble of her suburban London home when it was hit by a bomb during the Blitz, Margery survived and continued to correspond with John throughout the war, keeping their spirits up between his trips home on leave. Joining the ATS Signals, she served as a corporal in Brussels for a year after the city’s liberation, keeping a diary, collecting concert, theatre and dance programmes, and amongst other things taking snapshots of Winston Churchill and General Patton as they drove by. Not thinking that anyone would be remotely interested in a year in the life of an ATS girl, these remained undiscovered within a shoe box until after her death. In 1946 John and Margery were finally married and for the next 45 years, Margery was his inseparable companion, sharing all his interests and offering constant encouragement and support. After serving as a Flying Officer in the RAAF Regiment after the war John became a chemical sales manager, but with a quick wit and a true love of country, this was never going to be enough. Initially involved with civil defence preparations, by 1963 he had also become a busy and successful local councillor for the Conservative Party in southeast London, eventually standing in the general election of 1966 against the Government’s Chief Whip in a safe Labour seat — this despite nearly dying of what should by all accounts have proved a fatal heart attack the year before. Undeterred by defeat he carried on serving his local community until deteriorating health forced him to give up work and politics. However this otherwise grim situation offered him the time that he had always sought to further develop his interest in the Great War, one which led in 1970 to the publication of his first book “The Ypres Salient Then and Now”. This featured wartime photos alongside a modern equivalent that he had taken on the same spot, his impressions of the places photographed and narration including first hand accounts of the fighting. Being a stickler for detail he’d seek to take photographs at the same time of year and even the exact hour when a particular battle commenced. Extremely well-received, this book was followed by “The Somme Then and Now”
and just before his death, “The Western Front Then and Now”. All three books proved a huge inspiration to those who wished to not only understand the terrible conflict, but to walk in their forebear’s footsteps. However undoubtedly his greatest legacy remains the Western Front Association, which he founded in 1980 and initially chaired. Much respected, the Association continues to flourish, with members all over the world. As his health deteriorated, John was eventually confined to bed but with his sense of the ridiculous, would often amuse guests by receiving them whilst wearing a German Stahlhelm. Aged 70 and just after completing his third book, he died of heart failure in 1991. He was a clever, poetic, kind and passionately patriotic man who was much liked and admired. Alas, Margery never got over the death of her beloved husband, and continued to carry a torch for him until she passed peacefully away in 2008. They leave behind a proud son, but much more importantly a legacy that will continue to flourish as interest in the ‘War To End All Wars’
increases up to and beyond the centenary.