It’s a bit odd to see all the Centenary of the Great War commemoration this year when I can remember talking to men and women who lived through it. Granted I was a very little girl when my Great Uncle Harold explained he’d been in the Royal Flying Corps, in the skies above the Western Front.
I’m pretty sure I was five, which makes sense because the twenty-fifth anniversary of D-Day in 1970 would most likely have prompted me to ask what he did in ‘the war’ as we walked to the paper shop one sunny summer morning, when we were visiting my grandma’s elder sisters in Rustington on Sea. So Great Uncle Harold explained he’d been too old for the war when Grandpa had been in the RAF but he’d been in the war before that in the RFC. No, he hadn’t been a pilot. He’d been a bomber, in those open-cockpit bi-planes, which meant sitting in the back seat, setting the fuses and literally dropping bombs by hand over the side. I remember him talking about seeing the trenches – on both sides – so far below, with the men scurrying like ants and all looking exactly the same. I vividly remember him pausing, looking away into the middle distance and saying with heartfelt passion, ‘Poor devils.’ Then and now I don’t believe he was making any distinction between English and German forces.
My grandma and grandpa were seven years old when the Great War broke out, so they only remembered it as children. My grandpa recalled seeing zeppelins going over Felixstowe where he lived, heading for bombing raids on London. My grandma remembered her eldest brother, Albert, coming home from the trenches where he served from 1914 to 1918. Her mother saw him at the front gate and ran to hug him, only for him to say, ‘Don’t touch me, Mother, I’m crawling with lice.’ So the gardener had to set up a bath in the greenhouse where Albert could strip off and scrub himself down with carbolic soap. Grandma was naturally sent well away. Equally naturally she crept down the garden later, so see what she could see. Albert’s uniform was burning on a bonfire and she couldn’t even see the water in the bath for the layer of vermin covering it.
That’s all she learned about life on the Western Front because Albert never spoke of his experiences to anyone in his family. He gradually lost contact with them, especially after he became involved in the Spiritualist Church. Since then I’ve learned how many people turned to mediums through the 1920s, hoping to make contact with those who had died in the war. It’s impossible to know what Albert experienced but we can guess at some lifelong trauma. He died before I was born, not least from the lingering effects of being gassed.
We know of at least one traumatic experience which my stepfather’s father, Grandpa Joe, suffered in World War Two, but only because sorting through his effects after his death turned up the Distinguished Flying Medal and its accompanying citation. He would tell a few war stories, like borrowing an American jeep in Paris after the Liberation and driving it through the Arc de Triomphe. But he never told anyone, not even his wife, about the day when the Lancaster bomber where he was a radio operator, took such heavy fire that everybody was killed apart from him and one of the gunners. Between them those two young men flew the plane full of their dead comrades back to England and landed it safely. Whatever he thought of being called a hero, he took that to his grave.
Someone else who went all through the Great War in the trenches was Mr Brown who lived a few doors up from my grandparents. He never spoke of those four years either, according to my grandfather who was his friend. Not that I ever spoke to Mr Brown beyond saying hello if our paths crossed when I was walking the dog. He would smile and tip his hat to me and say good morning or good afternoon. He always wore a hat because he was Jewish; I knew that long before I had any clear idea what being Jewish meant. Because grandparents can’t tell war stories to a child like me without being asked ‘but why?’
Well, I never did understand who Kaiser Bill was or what he’d wanted until much later on, but the Nazis were more straightforward. There had been a second war because the Nazis wanted to invade and kill all the people they didn’t like. People like Mr and Mrs Brown. Why didn’t the Nazis like them? Because they’re Jewish. What’s Jewish? Apparently that meant only reading Old Testament stories from the Bible, going to somewhere called a synagogue instead of a church on Saturday instead of Sunday and if you were Mr Brown, always wearing a hat. Which did no harm to anyone and was no one’s business but their own. So that was clear enough. The Nazis had to be stopped from killing Mr Brown just because he was Jewish!
The Nazis, not the Germans. That was a distinction I was very clear on, from as early as I can remember, thanks to stories like how Mr Marsden won his medal. He was my grandparents’ next door neighbour and even as a small child, I remember him as a little man, short and slightly built, among the other grown-ups. Presumably this was why he was a clerk in the Pay Corps rather than a front line fighter in World War Two. That didn’t stop him being sent to Normandy in the week after D-Day. I realised the army’s inexorable logic as I grew older; someone had to update the records of all the dead who wouldn’t need their next pay packet.
Somehow or other, Mr Marsden got separated from his unit and ended up wandering round Normandy on his own as the shadows lengthened. He turned a corner in a country lane and came face to face with two young Germans about his own age, none of them over twenty. They all looked at each other. No one reached for a gun. Who knows who said hello first but he spoke a bit of German and they spoke some English. That was enough to establish that no one wanted to kill anyone. Since it was getting dark, they found a dry ditch where they could spend the night without getting shot by soldiers from either side. He had some chocolate and they had some bread, so they shared that all between them and showed each other family photographs and talked about their lives.
At some point they realised they’d better have a plan for the morning, so no one got shot, either as an enemy soldier or for fraternisation. So they decided their story would be the heroic capture of a prisoner or prisoners, depending which side they met first. Meantime, they exchanged names and addresses, agreeing to write to each other whenever the war finally ended, if they got home safe. Dawn came and off they went to find the Second World War. The first soldiers they encountered were an American unit and so the German lads were safely taken prisoner and Mr Marsden ended up getting a medal for capturing two enemy soldiers single handed. He found that very amusing but the most important thing to him was exchanging letters after the war and knowing those two young men got back to their families, just the same as him.
So this is why I wear a poppy and pause to mark Remembrance Day, for the sake of ordinary young men who found themselves in extraordinary and often appalling situations, which marked them, one way or another, for the rest of their lives. For the sake of their stories, retold in hopes that young men like my own sons, and everyone else’s children, won’t ever see such history repeated.