Most families share tales of those who have gone before, particularly those with a remarkable story.
Members of the Carter family from Huddersfield grew up with the knowledge that one of their predecessors, Clara Carter, had died during World War II in the most tragic of circumstances.
They knew that she was only in her twenties when she lost her life following an accident while serving with the Auxiliary Territorial Service near Brussels and that she was buried in a Belgian military cemetery. The fact that she’d died on the day the Germans surrendered, made her loss even more poignant.
But the finer details of the story remained a mystery until former Examiner librarian and retired police officer Steve Carter decided to investigate.
This summer Steve, 70, and his three cousins – Andrew Carter, 70, from Bradley; Elaine Brooke, 65, also from Bradley, and Susan Joyce, 63, of Newsome – having learned the terrible truth of what happened to Aunt Clara, decided to visit her grave in Leuven and pay tribute. It was an emotional journey into their family’s past.
Steve, from Almondbury, explained: “I had known about Aunt Clara for years but didn’t know the full story.
“Then I was reading a copy of Huddersfield at War by Hazel Wheeler and saw that she mentioned Clara.
“She said that the ATS girl was killed in a street accident in Brussels on VE Day, but this wasn’t what actually happened, as I found out.”
Steve decided to use his investigative skills to discover more.
“I emailed a Brussels newspaper to see if I could find coverage of the accident at the time and went on the internet to see what I could find,” he said.
The breakthrough came when Steve made contact with an English language journalist Derek Blyth, who lives in Belgium.
“He helped to piece the story together and now we know exactly what happened,” he added.
Clara, who was just 27, died on May 7, 1945, but the accident that eventually claimed her life happened months before on January 13.
She was one of 20 ATS girls who had been invited to a dance organised at a British Army military base somewhere between the Belgian towns of Leuven and Tienen.
The women were picked up from their camp near the village of Veltem and driven by lorry to the dance
After the dance was over, in the early hours of Saturday morning, the driver collected them and headed back to the camp. However, he hadn’t realised that the level-crossing over the railway line was locked by the guard every evening at 10pm.
He should have turned back but instead cut through the padlock and chain (which were later found in the grass beside the gate) and drove his lorry onto the railway line where it was struck by a fast-moving train.
“The impact was such that it pushed the lorry into a signal box, which was moved on its base, and the lorry burst into flames,” said Steve.
It was a truly horrific incident. The 20 women were trapped inside the vehicle and it’s almost certain that some died instantly. Others, including Clara, were seriously injured and taken to the 101st British General Hospital in a former girls’ school outside Leuven.
Four of Clara’s colleagues died on the same day – they were aged between 21 and 27.
By May of that year Clara was the only survivor but finally died of her severe injuries on May 7, the day that Germany Army officers signed an unconditional surrender in Rheims.
The following day Europe celebrated VE Day.
For the Carter family – her parents George and Sarah and siblings Frank and Annie – it must have been a bitter sweet day.
Six of the young women, including Clara, are buried in the military cemetery outside Leuven, surrounded by young British and American airmen shot down earlier in the war while flying bombing missions over Germany.
The train accident was reported in various local newspapers but there was some confusion over the details. It was only in 1996 that the full story became known in Belgium and was published by a local history circle in Herent.
An article written by a Belgian woman, Jeanne Servranckx, befriended by the ATS girls during the war, outlined what had happened.
She explained what she’d found the day after the accident: “We saw that there must have been a terrible impact. The whole signal box had been moved 15 centimetres. The black charred frame of the lorry was pulled aside.”
Visiting Leuven this summer the four members of the Carter family were moved by the story of the aunt they never knew. But glad that they made the trip in her memory.
“We still feel emotional about it now,” said Andrew, whose father Frank was Clara’s brother.
“My father intended visiting Clara’s grave while he was still in the Army and before being de-mobbed but then it was pointed out to him that he would have been absent without leave.
“My mother wouldn’t sail or fly so they never got round to going there.
“I’m glad we went because I always regretted never taking my father.”
Andrew was just two-years-old when Clara died and says he doesn’t remember his aunt but was told that she had seen him during leave from the ATS.
“We (the cousins) are the first family members to visit the grave. The cemetery is a beautiful place and it was very poignant. She died under such tragic circumstances and fought for her life for five months”.
Clara was born on August 8, 1918, at the family home in 16 Old Road, Bradley.
Her father George was a coal merchant’s labourer. Her mother’s maiden name was Ardron.
Clara attended Bradley Church School and before joining the ATS worked at Messrs Boothroyd Rugs Ltd in Thongsbridge.The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) was the women's branch of the British Army during the Second World War. It was formed on September 9, 1938, initially as a women’s voluntary service, and existed until February 1949, when it was merged into the Women's Royal Army Corps.
Prior to the Second World War, the Government decided to establish a new corps for women. An advisory council, which included members of the Territorial Army (TA), the Women's Transport Service and the Women's Legion, was set up. The council decided that women serving would receive two thirds the pay of male soldiers.