40 years had passed since Kate Binks had last stood in Sangro River War Cemetery, in southern Italy.
She had been a young woman in her 30s then - a sister, still grieving the death of her big brother who had died in the Abruzzo region 15 years earlier. Corporal Kenneth Binks, of Parkhead in Sheffield, had arrived in Italy in December 1943. He was a newlywed, who had married his sweetheart, Evelyn, just days before he set off to join the war effort in Europe.
The 23-year-old Yorkshire lad never received the Christmas care package that his new wife, mother, and big sister had so lovingly prepared for him. He was killed on December 28, just three weeks after his arrival in Italy. Today, his body is one of 2,617 from WWII to be buried in the pretty hillside cemetery, with its spectacular views of the Adriatic Sea.
It would be 1958 before his sister Kate was able to travel to visit his grave for the first time, clutching the precious letter from the Imperial War Graves Commission in her hands. It was a moment Kate never forgot, and years later, when she was diagnosed with dementia at the age of 75, she told her family the thing she most wanted to do was to return to Italy to see her brother.
“We went to Italy in 2000,” says Bella Binks, Kate and Ken’s niece, who accompanied the older women to the war cemetery on this second visit, and has since written a book about the experience.
“It was a massively spiritual journey; for Kate it was like taking a step back in time. It was December when we went, and it had rained non-stop in the run up to our arrival. We finally arrived at our hotel very late on December 27. The next day, December 28, the anniversary of Ken’s death, the sun was shining. It shone for us all day long.
“When we arrived at the cemetery, I had the printed guide in my hand that would lead us to the grave, but Kate was already walking ahead of me. She remembered it so well. Suddenly she took off running, weaving beneath the gravestones, and I had to dash to keep up with her.
“More than four decades had passed, but she took us straight to him.”
Bella chose recently to write the book, Sangro Sun: Women in Jeopardy, in tribute to Ken, and to his devoted sister Kate, who died ten years after that second visit to the war cemetery. She hopes the book, which she calls ‘fiction based on a true story’ will highlight the bravery of a generation of men and women who lived through the war, as well as the struggles of life living with dementia. All proceeds from the book are going directly to a military mental health charity, in Ken and Kate’s names.
“Of course I never got to meet Ken,” says Bella, aged 59, who was born and raised in Sheffield, and now lives in Staffordshire.
“I learned about him through the stories Kate would tell me, and her scrapbooks from the 50s. Even after she was diagnosed with dementia, she could remember the past so well. I didn't want her love and devotion to be forgotten and that was a big reason I decided to commit this story to paper. The recent Remembrance Day commemorations have really highlighted for so many people the effects that this war had, not just on the men serving, and those who lost their lives, but the families that were left behind. So much of Kate’s life was living with the sadness of losing her brother.
“I think in a world like this, that moves so fast, it's important that we remember what has been.”
‘Sangro Sun: Women in Jeopardy’ is available on Amazon and Kindle. Ken’s name appears as the 5th one down on the war memorial at his local church in Ecclesall.