I’ve watched many programmes on the TV over the last few days about the beginning of ‘The Great War’. Dry conversations between profs. and politicians talking about it and how awful it was and if only this had happened or that person had acted in another way…I’m not a war history reader, and very seldom will watch a war film.
Yet, I thought about my dad and how he would tell me about his grandfather and his experiences in WW1. I would just listen and not really take it in. He even sent me a large book about Passchendale,circling the pages that mentioned my Great Grandfathers regiment, and I am ashamed to say I gave it only a swift glance through back then.
I took the book off my shelf yesterday in curiosity,just to see what my distant relative had done in the war. I didn’t put the book down until I had read most of it. There was a note inside from my dad,long since died,telling me what regiment and battles his Granddad had fought in. In one battle his was the only regiment to make any progress, and that was because they did not follow the orders of the officers,ie go over the top in straight lines (just to be picked off by machine gun fire!) and head for the other side of no mans land. They just went over, helping each other and fought. They were called brave. I would call them brave, but I would also call them terrified,doing anything to survive and help out their pals to get through another day in that hell.
I remembered what my dad had told me about him, fragments of conversations I’m angry I never listened to more keenly.According to my dad, my great grandfather never forgot what went on in the war. He had respiratory problems for the rest of his life after ‘taking in a lungfull of gas’ and still kept a small kit bag full of reminders. My dad had asked him about each item. ‘What was the stub of candle for? Seeing in the dark?’
My Great Grandfather had laughed at that,told my dad that he would have been ‘picked off’ if he had lit it at night! It was to burn the lice from their clothes,he could still hear the cracking as they died in the lining of his greatcoat.He would feel bad about the men that died on both sides, then clam up and not talk anymore.
When I had finished reading, I had a new appreciation for him and his story. I wanted to speak to him,ask him more questions, the war became personal not just something from a history textbook. I realized that if he had not fought,crawled through shit,mud and bodies I would not have been here. The will to survive is strong, and when I find myself saying I’m ‘stressed’ whether its about the household bills or noise pollution, I’ll have a strong word with myself. Get on with it, there is far worse that you could be going through girl, and someone has already done that for you.