THE Great War represents a crisis in my family history. By this, I mean that it represents the point at which my family took part in History for the first time. Before the war my family’s only mark on public space lay in the pages of parish registers when they were “hatched, matched, and dispatched” along with the rest of the rural poor.
When the war began, my grandfathers were swept up into another life. They received army numbers, joined regiments, got wounded, and, ultimately, received medals. What had been generations of agricultural existence were for the first time questioned, if not yet broken. Questioned, but not broken; for, as both Bert and Sam discovered, life in the army was the continuation of agricultural labour by other means; they had, as Ronald Blythe puts it, “fled the wretchedness of the land in 1914” only to discover an intensification of it in Flanders.
They were yeomen made the makers of what Paul Fussell calls the Troglodyte World, burying bodies and the remains of bodies, digging deeper so as to make safer places or better places for killing.
Grandad Bert (my mum’s dad) was a Private in the Worcestershire regiment. I only knew him as an exceptionally quiet old man who loved Saturday afternoon wrestling and watching snooker on black and white TV. His whole life was orientated around the land, primarily as a farm labourer. If he had ever been a dreamer, or a man of words, I do not know. It only seemed to me that his past had silenced him.
Grandad Bert was at ease with a hoe in his hand, working out the rural choreography of centuries in the easy movements of his body and tools. And yet, from the point of view of a small child, it was as if his short, plump frame and his loose jowls gathered silence to itself. Even when his wife, Doll, aka Granny Collins, was still alive, it seemed to me that he had nothing to say. Granny had all the words, was full of stories and rumours and gossip. His silence said more than all of her remarkable words.
But if I remember Granny’s love and silly stories, and the way she would paint kitchen cupboards bright orange, it is Bert who haunts me now. Perhaps because I remember him speaking only once.
As a small child, I became fascinated by war, read endless tales about derring-do. I knew Grandad had fought in the Great War, and yet I knew it was something we did not, as a family, talk about. Or, if we did, we did not do so in his company. Yet I remember once asking him about his experience in the war. He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t seem angry. He spoke quietly about being wounded on the Somme.
I was excited. I’d heard of this place. I’d read about it in magazines and books. It made me think of heroes and courage and glory. I asked where else he’d fought, with the childish and insensitive passion of the child who thinks only of glory and doesn’t yet appreciate the pain. He mumbled some places I’d not heard of, finally mentioning another familiar place, Passchendaele. I asked him what it was like to have been a soldier. He looked at me sadly, and, with a finality I could not challenge, said, simply, “Passchendaele was the worst.”
IT IS perhaps impossible for a child to ever properly appreciate that their parents, let alone their grandparents, were ever young. Even now, as a middle-aged woman, when I look at the photos of Bert and Sam as old men, and compare them with the rare images of them as youths, I still can’t quite believe it. As I reconsider that memory of Bert talking in such an understated, taciturn manner about being at Passchendaele, the place that has become the icon of that war’s beastliness, I find it harder still. For any creature — man or beast — to have lived through that is surely impossible.
On 18 July 1917, the British and Canadian forces began laying down a barrage that, come the initial assault on 31 July, had expended four-and-a-quarter million shells. That autumn of 1917, the naturally high water-table of Flanders was tipped into disaster by constant bombardment and unseasonal levels of rain. It was the season of the war when, if the shells and the bullets didn’t get you, the bottomless shell-holes would. To step off the duckboards could spell death. Man and beast would simply be sucked under.
There is that famous photo of Canadian machine gunners in the wasteland of the battlefield. At first, you can barely distinguish them from the landscape. It is as if it is absorbing them, their sodden, muddy uniforms becoming simply another feature of the broken ground. The gunners have no real identity any more. They have become the war and the war them. Which is another way of registering the thought, “How could any human being have been in that place and remained a human being?”
And somehow I find it even more bewildering to think of a young man, even with military training, cast into that. Bert would have been barely 21-years-old when he experienced Passchendaele. And, yes, the young are resilient and capable of the most extraordinary things, perhaps precisely because they are discovering the world for the first time. The world had grown very old by the autumn of 1917, and the likes of Bert had long since lost their innocence. He was no virgin to violence.
The older I get, however, the less I can comprehend how any of those young men did not completely collapse. It is true that there were quiet sectors in the Great War: it is also true that men were fed in and out of the line reasonably frequently, but all writers seem to agree that the Ypres Salient — which Passchendaele was supposed to break (and barely shifted from late 1914 till 1918) — was constantly “hot”. And, in October 1917, it became, as a result of unseasonal weather, the iconic quagmire of our most terrible imaginings.
I think of my nephews — young men, or soon to become young men — and know that they might choose a military career. They might be trained in the instruments of violence and be sent to “foreign fields”. But they are children to me. When we are young, we think we are so grown up, but I look at Mike and Alex or Sam and Tom and they seem barely formed. I cannot imagine throwing Mike, good strong lad that he is, into the vile fields of Flanders. And yet he is practically the same age as Bert was when he saw too much.
To develop the character to live life well is a lifetime’s work, and youths such as Bert saw more than those of us who have grown old or middle-aged in the privileged West have ever seen.
Somewhere in the midst of that truth lies a mystery. For surely any sane person would be desperate to spare not only their loved ones, but anyone the knowledge of war’s vileness. Yet the fact that men like Bert came home and found some way, any way, to take up the threads of a lost life is deeply moving. Indeed, more than that, part of our call to remember them lies in the truth that they faced the impossible and, whether they were killed or physically maimed or emotionally shattered, they found some way to carry on. In most cases, they made a home, raised children, and found some way to act for the good.
IN THE piles of photographs of family weddings and christenings and holidays, among that family catalogue of bad hairdos, uncomfortable uncles, and (to borrow a phrase of Larkin’s) “rapidly readjusted ties”, is a spotted blotched photo of a group of uniformed men driving a piece of artillery across a sepia wasteland. My dad tells me this is a picture of his dad, Sam, yet he doesn’t know which of the figures in the landscape he is. Grandad could be the one on the second right. He could be any one of these men.
Geoff Dyer, in his classic study of the Great War and visual culture, draws out how the war supplied a series of myths which every family and soldier got caught up in. So, for example, my dad tells the story about how Grandad had this pocket watch, which he’d lent to his best mate John Godwin in the trenches. The pocket watch, I was told, saved John Godwin’s life: a bullet just bounced off. As a child, I lapped it up. Only later did I realise that all families had this story, either a pocket watch or a Bible saving someone’s life. It was everyone’s story.
My grandad could be any of the men in the photo. He could be any soldier. He could be anyone’s grandad.
This is an edited extract from: Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, ritual, memory and God, published by DLT at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70), (Books, 28 April).