Soldiers silhouette

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month

Lest we forget

Today, 11th of November, in Europe, is the centenary of the Armistice. It was signed at 11a.m. and marked the end of the First World War. Whilst I am not old enough to have experienced either the First or Second World Wars first hand, I am of that generation born in England in the fifties who nevertheless have felt their effects.

My great grandfather was killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. His wife was left to raise five children alone, the eldest being my grandmother. My great grandmother couldn’t cope and my grandmother was forced to run the Two Brewers, the pub they managed in Shoe Lane, off Fleet Street in London, and help raise her siblings. The pub was a regular watering hole for the journalists and newspapermen that occupied Fleet Street at that time. I cannot imagine the working conditions she endured but I am sure they would not have been conducive for a 16-year-old girl.

My grandfather, who later became her husband, was a Sapper in the Royal Engineers and served in the trenches. He survived but returned from the Front, like many, with what would now be recognised as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He became an alcoholic. My father talked little about his childhood. It was not a happy one. There was always much shouting and arguing between his parents “because of the drink”. They lived in West Ham and one of the few stories he told me was how he liked to take his bike on the Woolwich ferry to the other side of the Thames, which was then still countryside. On one such occasion, he picked flowers to take home to his mother. Back at the house, an argument was in progress and it ruined his day. This, I gathered, was not unusual.

My grandfather attempted suicide when dad was 8. Arriving home from school, dad found his father with his head in the gas oven. Such were the memories of the conditions in the trenches, the killing, and the effects of the gas attacks he no longer wanted to live. My father had to grow up himself that day and felt responsible for his mother for the rest of her life. I discovered at his funeral that two of dad’s uncles had killed themselves with their service revolvers after the War as they could not cope with the aftermath and the trauma.

My memories of my grandfather are of a tall but stooped, thin, quiet man who liked to smoke a pipe or roll his own cigarettes. He sat in an armchair close to the television and always watched wrestling, followed by Bonanza on a Saturday afternoon. I don’t remember ever seeing him the worse for alcohol but as a child I may not have noticed. He died in his late sixties when I was about 12. My grandmother, by contrast, was very short and stern. I was afraid of her, but then I was scared of most adults! She lived until she was 91.

In the Second World War, to escape from home, dad lied about his age and joined the Navy. At age 17, he was captured at the disastrous raid on Dieppe in 1942. He swam around in the water for five hours before going ashore where the Germans were waiting. He had been swimming with his Captain but he had been blown up or as dad matter-of-factly described it “he went up in the air and came down in bits”.

He went up in the air and came down in bits.

Dad was taken to Lamsdorf in Silesia, now Poland, where he was held as a Prisoner of War for the next three years. In his latter years, he talked a little about this time. He regarded himself as being lucky. After a lengthy three-month stint in hospital with an unidentified (to me) illness, a New Zealand doctor took pity on him and found him a job in the prison kitchen. From what I gather he spent a lot of time peeling potatoes! However, it meant he was not doing the hard physical labour he might otherwise have been doing and for that he was thankful. Towards the end of the war, and with the Russians advancing, the Germans force marched all the prisoners to Germany (Lamsdorf Long March). Somehow, dad and a friend escaped the column they were in and reached the American lines. I can’t imagine how frightening that time was for him.

After the war, dad spent a year in what was then referred to as a ‘mental hospital’. We never discussed it in the family. He suffered periodic bouts of depression throughout my childhood. These could sometimes last several weeks and during that time, he spoke little. He only ever wanted a quiet, conflict-free life.

I now have two sons of my own. They are both a decade older than my father or grandfather were when they went to war. It fills me with horror to think of them in that position and I hope I never see the day when either of them (or indeed my daughter) are ever called to serve but that, no doubt, is how all mothers have thought throughout the ages.

The First World War was the war to end all wars. How often have I heard that? And yet, how many wars have taken place since then? Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands, The Gulf, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen… the list goes on and on. We have world leaders using combative rhetoric and speech that incites agggression and war veterans with PTSD going on killing sprees. The human race does not seem to learn. Did all those young men and women die for nothing? The waste of life continues and we must never forget any of those who have died in combat serving their countries.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

(from the poem “For the Fallen” by Lawrence Binyon)

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