Posts Tagged ‘soldiers’

It’s November, a bitterly cold Friday afternoon at the little war memorial at Grinstead, and like every year I’m looking for my great uncle’s name: Charles W. Munroe. But the names have faded, softened so much now you only need a bit of rain and they dissolve into the blurry background, a list of just twenty lads, fading back into the dirt of a hundred years as the weather turns foul on all of us.

I don’t know how many of them are remembered – their names I mean – and by people who carry them still in their hearts. Sure, like all villages with a modicum of religious faith remaining, there’ll be a ceremony on Sunday: Remembrance Day. There’ll be cubs and scouts and maybe some old soldiers from the British Legion in their white gloves, blazers and berets. But the names themselves are fading into something more symbolic and less personal: at the going down of the sun, and in the morning,… and all that.

But it’s still personal for me. Uncle Charlie was still spoken of by my mother’s family, though not really known by any of them, other than as an empty place at the table. He was my grandmother’s brother, dead at 25, lost in the war, the great war, that is, the war to end all wars. I remember my mother’s tone in particular, whenever she spoke of him, how that word “lost” carried with it a sense of mystery at a life arrested, a curiosity at the “lost” years, at the potential for a life, for who knows what he might have made of it, what he might have become.

Anyway, I take the plain wooden cross from my pocket, on which I’ve penned his name, and I press it into the soil of the little planter at the memorial’s base – heathers and winter pansies – very neat, colourful, well kept, always respectful. I do this every year and for reasons too complex to get into here. I’m usually alone but this afternoon, in spite of the pouring rain and the cold, there’s this scruffy guy sitting to one side quaffing a can of beer, and his presence is making me want to hurry, to turn my collar to the rain and get back to the car.

“Oh, I know what you’re thinking,” he says.

Really? I doubt that. I don’t want to speak to him. I feel intimidated  actually, this big bloke, unshaven, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, or just drunk. I don’t know Grinstead any more, but I’ve no doubt there’ll be drugs and other bad things here, like everywhere else now, bad characters proliferating since my mother’s day, since this street rang to the sound of her heels on a Saturday night, off down to the station, and the train to Middleton for the dancing. It was always my mother’s village, a place she pined for all her married life and never returned to, changed beyond her knowing, and now there’s this drunk guy sitting at the war memorial in the pouring rain with a carrier bag full of beer.

Me? I just want to do this thing alone like I always do, this private act of remembrance, and something more, something for my mother and her sisters, all gone now; something about the past, her past and by association my own past and, to an extent, the possibly misguided sense of my own squandered potential.  Then I want to get back to my own life as it is now, which I fear is looking rather,… spent, actually, that as I approach my sixtieth year, Great Uncle Charlie might have made better use of the time I was given, and have so blithely wasted. So maybe it’s a little twist of bitterness, a little bit of guilt that makes me momentarily defiant, and I turn to him, this beery slob and I say: “So what’s that then? What do you think I’m thinking?”

“Ignorant bastard,” he says. “That’s what you’re thinking. Remembrance Sunday coming up and you there with your respectful little poppy pinned to your jacket and your cross there and wanting a quiet moment with your fallen, and me sitting here, this hairy cretin with no poppy, quaffin’ a tin of beer.”

“I wasn’t thinking that.”

“Well, ‘appen you should be. So, which one’s yours then?”

I point him out.

“France?” he asks.

“No,… Mesopotamia, 1918, a week before the Armistice. All the others died in France.”

“How do you know about the others?”

“I’ve looked them up over the years. Why? Is one of them yours?”

He shakes his head, drains the tin, crushes it flat in his bear-like paw. “Nah, none of mine’s up there, at least so far as I know.” He’s quiet for a moment, and I’m thinking he’s finished, that I might escape now, thank goodness, but then he says: “Aiden. Falklands. Belfast. That’s where mine fell. Nearly got me too. Belfast, that is. Roadside bomb. Mate lost his legs. I got blown clean across the street, otherwise not a scratch on me. Never can tell, can you? Ears rang for fuckin’ months after that though.”

“You were a soldier?”

He nods. “Invalided out.”

“You were wounded? But I thought you said,…”

“Nah. Survived all that. It weren’t the Provos that got me. In the end I were shot in the arse by one of me own. Accident, like. Live firin’ exercise. Not much glory in that, is there?”

“Not much glory in death either. Just,… well,… death.”

“True,” he says, then pulls another tin from his carrier bag. “It was a good life. The army. Enjoyed it. Not everyone does. Doesn’t suit everyone. You know? But it suited me. Had some good mates. The best. All dead now. You ever served?”

“Me?… no. The army would have made mince-meat out of me, most like.”

“Then you wouldn’t know, maybe, and no disrespect. Hard to describe,… but you’d die for your mates and, make no mistake, peaceable though you think you are, you’d kill for ’em too. Nowadays I work in a fuckin’ shop for this evil, penny-pinching bastard who, incidentally, all your lads up there died for, that he might live, so to speak.” He sighs. “Anyway,… I like to share a drink with ’em now and then, even if I don’t know ’em. Or how, or why they died.”

Okay, I’m ashamed to admit he was right, earlier; that’s exactly what I was thinking: Ignorant bastard. But you never can tell, can you? He offers me a tin and I feel privileged to sit down with him for a while, in the rain and the cold, and to share a sip of beer.

After all, no great story ever began with someone eating salad!




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british and german casualties ww1 - wikipedia - Photographer Ernest BrooksOn July 28th, this year, it will be a hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War. Already the commemorative columns and books are hitting the press. This is to be expected and indeed welcomed because the lessons taught by the trauma of the Great War cannot be overstated or too often repeated. But less expected has been an attempt by voices within the British establishment and the media to repackage the war in a less than cautionary light. Of particular note, TV presenter, historian and “personality” Dan Snow writes that most of what we think we know of the war is a myth, and that much of the bad press surrounding the war has been overplayed – that as conflicts go, it wasn’t so bad. Indeed he writes there is much in our (allied forces) conduct of the war to be proud of, and that far from being worse off, most men who fought were better looked after than they would have been had they stayed at home.

You can read that article here.

This came as a shock to me since my own impression of the war comes from other writings, all of which paint a very different picture, one that is much at odds with this rather more “upbeat” view, but the argument runs that the things I’ve read were written by authors equally bent on a re-visioning of the truth, so all we are left with now are the myths.

But what it was really like for the men who fought? Can we no longer get at the truth of it? Was it simply too long ago? Well, let’s not forget the personal accounts, both poetic and narrative. These words cannot be massaged to suit the prevailing mood of the times, and therefore remain for ever the most forcible in persuading us of the horror, the inhumanity and the sheer stupidity of war. In this centenary year, I will not be “celebrating” the conflict in the sense of making a flag-waving Jubilee out of it, but I will be marking it by reading more of the stories of those who fought: the colliers, the quarrymen, the farmhands, the weavers and the tram-drivers. They alone have earned the right to teach us the lessons that a certain class of society seems incapable of remembering for very long.

They are gone now, those men who fired the rifles beneath an unimaginable deluge of shells. The last of them was Harry Patch, who passed away in 2009. He did not speak well of the Great War, indeed he did not speak of it at all for eighty years. But their stories are written down for us, and we should make it our business to read them. The ordinary people of the world do not learn much from the careful analysis of historians and statisticians. We learn from others, like us.

I trust this revisioning of the conflict is not a first attempt at inspiring us still beleaguered Brits to a flag-waving patriotism, as a diversion from our continuing economic woes. Such things will not wash. Anyone who has traced their ancestry will be familiar with those trails lost in the mud of that gargantuan conflict; of grandfathers and great-uncles who did not return. It’s quite plain to me that something awful happened, something on a scale never before experienced, something that has left its mark on the memorials in every town and village in the land, and has left its mark too in the ancestral memory.

How all of this touches me is in part through the story of my grandmother’s brother who enlisted as a private in the King’s Liverpool Regiment, 2nd Garrison Battalion. He died in Salonika, in October 1918, aged 26. In my wife’s family, there are two other young men who served in the war. One was killed at Ypres, aged 19. His name is engraved at the Menin Gate memorial. The other, aged 21, was lost at the battle of the Somme and is remembered at Thiepval as one of the 70,000 “Missing”. Uncovering the stories of these young men still comes as a shock to the gut, even after a hundred years. It makes the remembrance personal and it exposes all historical revisioning as ultimately meaningless.

One of the ten myths “busted” by Dan Snow is the one that says most men who went to the war did not come back. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard that said, but anyway it’s not true say the statistics, and the statistics may be right, for all I know. But what I also know is that of the sons of enlistment age I have chronicled among the ancestry of my own sons’ family, we have three who fought, and who did not come back.

It was Joseph Stalin who observed that the death of a single man is a tragedy, while the death of thousands is a mere statistic. To the politician, to the historian, to the chroniclers of war, sixteen million deaths can be counted and cut and spun at us any way they like. But the real story of war, its lessons, and the measure of its waste, can only be found in the hearts of the individual families for whom each man lost is indeed a tragedy, and one that still echoes down the generations.

I am not so naive as to think that war can always be avoided – sadly sometimes it cannot. But let those who would make war imagine first that it will be their own sons they are sending out under a rain of shells. Let the remembrance Sundays continue to be occasions for solemn reflection. It still matters that we think of this, and keep the lessons close. And let us keep also at arms length those who would paint a rosy picture of armed conflict, seeking to convince us those involved in it had anything like a jolly time. Let us remember too that from the higher human perspective, it is always war itself that is the enemy, the real struggle being against those so often intangible forces within the human psyche that would subvert a lasting peace in favour of yet one more bloody conflagration.


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