I suspect many of us here will have seen the image of a young woman being hoisted on a fellow’s shoulders and gleefully bearing a banning which stated that “THIS IS NOT A COUNTRY FOR WHITE OLD MEN” (ironically jostling for space with another saying “NO TO RACISM”). The fact that this was being bandied aloft close by the Cenotaph not only made my blood boil but set me thinking about the influence of a war that still resonates a century after it was over. (I was going to use the picture of the girl and the banner as a header for this piece but my anger over the image was so intense I couldn’t bring myself to use it. Instead I’ve countered it with another being hoisted on a fellow’s shoulders…)
Like most folk I had one father, one mother, two grandfathers and two grandmothers. One set of grandparents I was never to know as they died some 20 years before I was born but both they and my maternal grandparents were directly involved in the First World War and both were deeply affected by it in different ways.
Let’s take my maternal grandfather first. The son of a successful accountant in Birmingham he began training for the Catholic priesthood in 1913 only to have his studies interrupted by the outbreak of the war. He volunteered and became a stretcher bearer – whether this was because of any innate pacifism I never found out – and he soon found himself at the Western Front. The only mention he ever made of this time was the observation that boots and laces of the dead sticking out of the mud were valuable prizes. In 1917 he became an RFC pilot and despite a number of crashes survived the war. My maternal grandmother who was yet to meet her future husband worked as a nurse on board the ships bringing the wounded back from Gallipoli. In 1919 they met, married and my mother was born in 1920. All thoughts of returning to studying for the priesthood had long been scoured by the horrors that he had witnessed on the killing fields. (Parenthetically I must make the observation that if the First World War had not intervened my grandfather would have completed his path to priesthood and my mother and I would not have been born.)
As my great grandfather (whom I never met) was a successful accountant and owned a number of properties in and around Birmingham he set his son and his new wife up in one of the houses and employed my grandfather as a money-collector for recalcitrant clients. Unfortunately, my grandfather was never able to establish a career for himself and for the rest of his life subsisted on the money and estate left to him by his father. One might surmise that the effects of the war had made a deep psychological impression on him as it had on a whole generation that stumbled back into civvy street in 1919. While 744,000 British troops had been killed, over double that number were physically injured to a greater or lesser extent. Those suffering from PTSD, as it is now recognised, were never counted.
My paternal grandfather had a very different First World war. Joining the Coldstream Guards as a private in March 1915 he was discharged on health grounds some 63 days later in May and took no part in combat whatsoever. However the story doesn’t end there. By the time the war had begun in 1914 he and my grandmother, living in fairly squalid Birmingham back-to-backs had four children, one of whom was my father. There had been a fifth but he had already died from TB in 1911. Another child was to be born in 1916 – my aunt – bringing the tally back up to a total of five children and two adults living in one room downstairs which doubled as a kitchen and two rooms upstairs. The single lavvy was out in the yard and was shared by eight other houses. It was not a flushing lavvy and the night soilman would come around every 24 hours to empty the waste. Despite not taking a combatant’s role the my grandfather’s story darkens even further.
As he wasn’t able to work he stayed at home to look after the kids while my grandmother went to the Kynoch’s munitions factory in Wilton – a fairly short walk from home – to earn some badly needed money. She would return home after a day’s work with her skin turned yellow from the chemicals in use. Whether it was the chemicals or the Spanish flu that killed her in 1919 one may never know but it left my grandfather with five children to look after – and no job. A daughter quickly followed her mother into the grave just a couple of months afterwards – diptheria being the killer.
So, let’s just stop for a moment and contemplate the scenario that is now facing my grandfather. He was 38 years of age, a widower, two of his children already dead and four others dependent on him completely. He had no choice but to farm out two of the children – including my father – to relatives. He kept the eldest lad – at 13 years of age he could begin work and earn some money – and the youngest. How my grandfather coped with the decimation of his family I cannot begin to imagine but by 1926, the year of his death at age 45, he had moved from the back-to-back and was living with his own father in a house in Aston. I presume the youngest of his children had moved with him and was now looked after by the grandfather.
This scenario was by no means unusual. My guess is that many readers of GP could recount similar stories once they dig back into their past and my contention is that even though these events happened a century ago they had and continue to have a profound affect on the lives of all families in the United Kingdom whether they recognise it or not. There can have been very, very few people who were either not personally bereaved or at least knew others who had suffered losses. In small towns and villages up and down the country memorials bear witness to long list of names – all male – who died fighting for their country. We look at those names and behind each one are the ghosts of parents, wives, children and grandchildren who have had to live with the loss. The total sum of those affected will numbered in their many millions. Thus I look back and mourn those paternal grandparents that I never met buried incognito in unmarked graves in a Perry Barr churchyard, a maternal grandfather who was surly and uncommunicative, a father who lost his mother when he was 5 and his father when he was 12 and whose strict upbringing with a maiden aunt meant that he was unable to form any kind of bond with his own children. He, too, was dragged into a war and spent some five years encamped in various parts of the UK before embarking for France on D-Day+3.
And now I see white old men denigrated and abused on placards as racists, bigots and misguided. “Why don’t they just die?” is an oft repeated mantra by those who blame them for voting Brexit. Well, for those whose grasp of history barely reaches back beyond 2010 let me just plant this firmly in front of them. All those young white men, lying under the white crosses in Flanders fields would loved to have become old white men – but they never got the chance. They were slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands so that you can have the freedom to decry their sacrifice, mock the pain and suffering of their widows and belittle the children and grandchildren who were left to live with the reverberating consequences of two wars that guaranteed our – and your – freedom in this country.
© Roger Ackroyd 2018