How Michael Palin’s great-uncle survived Gallipoli – then went to the Somme

British troops at the Battle of the Somme
British troops at the Battle of the Somme

Private HWB Palin drew one of history’s shorter straws. Having survived Gallipoli in 1915, in 1916 he fetched up on the Somme. His body, known only unto God, was never recovered. To participate in one of humanity’s bloodiest battles may be counted a misfortune. Two looks like the sadism of fate.

More than a century on, however, this previously unknown soldier gets a posthumous stroke of luck. In Great-Uncle Harry, his famous great-nephew Michael has pieced together his story, and it has all the makings of a globe-trotting epic spanning oceans and continents, citadels and empires.

The only problem is that Harry is much the blurriest figure on Palin’s family tree. The last of nine children born to a Herefordshire vicar and his American wife in 1884, he underwhelmed at school – Shrewsbury, later attended by Palin M – and was packed off to India where, working on tea plantations, the main impression he made was negative. “He is a rather self-satisfied young man,” snorted one employer. “He seems to be lacking in intelligence,” sniffed another. Instead he tried farming in New Zealand, then a shot rang out in Sarajevo and Harry, now 30, started to keep a diary.

The book’s first half is an archaeological trudge. Palin picks up clues where he can, and feasts on the lively journal kept by Harry’s father as a romantic young academic holidaying in the Alps. Indeed, the man’s courtship of Palin’s great-grandmother had enough narrative meat in it to be fictionalised in Palin’s 1991 film American Friends.

Harry is less promising. He stays out of focus in the undocumented shadows, obliging his biographer to feed off crumbs and gruel. There is much frustrated deployment of the conditional, that tense of hunches and guesstimates. “I’m into a tantalising area of supposition here,” Palin ventures. In truth, he’s rarely out of it. “We know what he thought of group photographs,” he affirms at one point. We don’t. All we know is what Palin thinks he thought. “I have to draw conclusions from the scantiest of evidence,” he explains. When he finds on a medical report that Harry’s left testicle is atrophied, he’s straight in with an interpretation. “Could this be an unexpected insight into understanding Harry?”

Michael Palin
Digging deep: Michael Palin has researched his family history for his latest book - Andrew Crowley

After all the hypotheses, Palin falls on Harry’s diary like a desert wanderer slaking his thirst at an oasis. Yet to the author’s frustration, the diarist didn’t jot a lot down. “Nothing much to note,” Harry reports on a day when other more numinous diarists (much quoted here) were writing up a storm. In a single entry, he’ll talk of shrapnel sent by the Turks and socks sent by his mother. It’s all the same to Harry. “Sometimes I wish he could be more poetic,” Palin sighs.

But history, played out in gnomic entries by a plodding witness, nonetheless elbows its way in. And this is really the point of dull, ordinary, unimaginative Private Palin: he is an everyman who takes his great-nephew onto the battlefield and suddenly you are there with him, trapped in a trench under German bombardment. “Absolute HELL for nearly 2hrs. I came through all right, but am a fearful wreck.” Any reader will be, by the time Harry makes his final bathetic entry.

By then, he has become less of a blank sheet. From the trench fire-step, he even launches into a tirade against General Godley, “thinking only of himself and his honours”. Godley, later made Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, lived to be 90. Private Palin now gets his own public tombstone. As well as a tireless and empathetic work of exhumation, Great-Uncle Harry is a good example of what amateur genealogists can achieve if they put their shoulder to the wheel. The added value, of course, comes from spending time with the author who is, as ever, an alert and genial travel companion as we journey into the past.

Great-Uncle Harry: A Tale of War and Empire is published by Hutchinson Heinemann at £22. To order your copy for £18.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books