As Remembrance weekend approaches, PETER BARRON tells the story of how a glass eye, kept in a wooden box by his mother for more than 70 years, symbolises the unseen horrors of war...

DIG deep enough, and every family has a story to tell about a relative who fought for their country in wartime. This is mine…

It's a story that, for more than 70 years, has been locked away in the darkness of a small, mahogany box.

But, each November, when the poppies are on sale, my 92-year-old Mum likes to open the box to let the light in, and hold on to a memory for a minute or two. 

Sitting quietly in her home in Middlesbrough, she pulls out an envelope containing a brief, fading letter, a miniature New Testament bible – ‘Active Service Edition’ – and a glass eye.

They are items that might easily have been lost, but she put them away for safekeeping as a young girl, and now she’s passed them on to me to do the same.

These days, she struggles to remember exactly how the glass eye came into her possession. But she knows more than enough to still make her own eyes – and mine – well up with tears as she tells the epic tale.

It’s about one of her seven brothers, Steve Bishop. As you can see from the photograph, he was a handsome young man, and a fine athlete, who spent his childhood in Birkenhead before the family moved to New Southgate, in London, in 1937.

Steve was christened Fred, but he was nicknamed after the most famous jockey of the day, Steve Donaghue, because they wore similar caps.

The nickname stuck, and he was always ‘Uncle Steve’ to me and my brothers – a hero we never met.

At the outbreak of the war, he joined the New Southgate Home Guard and, in 1942, volunteered for the Royal Artillery.

He was posted to Gibraltar, then North Africa, before being transferred to No. 221 Field Company, Royal Engineers, serving in Italy with his younger brother, Ernie.

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In April, 1945 – weeks before Germany surrendered – a group of British sappers were summoned by their sergeant to clear mines. When the name 'Bishop' was called, both Steve and Ernie stepped forward. Neither wanted the other to go, so they tossed a coin. Steve won.

During the mission, a soldier jumped from an armoured car, landed on a box mine and was killed instantly. The blast hit Steve, leaving him with horrific injuries, including the loss of both eyes.

Somehow, word of Steve’s injuries reached his older brother, Bert, who was stationed elsewhere in Europe.

Refused permission to travel to see his stricken brother in an Italian field hospital, Bert went AWOL, secretly hitching lifts – including on a plane – to be by his side. Bert made it but ended up being court martialled.

Back home in London, my Mum, then 14, recalls the party mood in the capital as the end of the war was declared.

Having been bombed out twice during the Blitz, the family lived above a shop in Friern Barnet, and a banner – emblazoned with the words ‘Welcome Home Boys’ – was hung across the street.

“Everyone was in such a happy mood – and then there was a knock at the door downstairs,” she recalls.

It was an Army officer, armed with a letter confirming the grim news that Steve had been badly wounded.

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He was brought back to a military hospital in this country before being nursed at St Dunstan’s, a care home for blind former servicemen and women. (He is pictured below during a seaside outing from St Dunstan's)

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“He was in a terrible state,” says Mum. “He had injuries to his legs and body, and he’d lost some fingers from shielding his face. His eyes were covered in bandages.”

During one of the many heartbreaking family visits to St Dunstan’s, my Mum's teenage curiosity got the better of her and she asked Steve and his nurse if she could see behind his bandages.

"It was just something I was determined to do – I just wanted to know," she says. "There was nothing there – just flesh. It's a sight I'll never forget."

Steve often talked to the nurses about whether he might have false eyes fitted to make him look better. Without any eye-lids, it was never an option, but he was given a glass eye to provide comfort and hope.

"He kept the glass eye in his bedside table, and would hold it in his hand while listening to his records. The Ink Spots were his favourites," Mum remembers.

Steve was taught to touch-type at St Dunstan's and, on June 6, 1946, he wrote to his family. With the odd mistake in their names, it triumphantly said: This is the first letter I have typed myself. With love, Steve xx

He died of his injuries two years after the end of the war. He was just 25 years old, and is buried in St Pancras Cemetery, East Finchley.

In a letter to Steve's family, the commandant of St Dunstan's wrote: His very severe injuries were borne so courageously by him that he was an example to those who, although less disabled, were less able to bear their disablement.

Along with Steve's one-paragraph letter home, the New Testament, and the glass eye, my Mum has a newspaper cutting from his funeral, which has provided much of the detail for this account of his tragically short life.

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For all these years, she's also hung onto Steve's battered old black case containing what's left of his beloved record collection.

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A favourite song by The Ink Spots was called Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall. It seems very fitting in the context of his story.

Into each life, some rain must fall,

Too much is falling in mine.

Into each heart, some tears must fall,

Someday the sun will shine.

The glass eye is, of course, completely worthless, yet priceless at the same time.

To me it is a symbolic reminder not just of the loss of one young life, but of the unseen horrors of war.

Whether it's a mine exploding in Italy in 1945, or bombs raining down on Ukraine and Gaza in 2023, men, women and children are not only being killed, but countless more are left maimed and blind.

Lest we forget.

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