Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lest we forget

Ninety years ago at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the Armistice was signed to end the war that was meant to end all wars, but which of course sadly did no such thing. I think whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of war, it is important that we do take this time to remember and honour the dead from all wars, and particularly the ones being fought currently.

Like most people in this country, I suspect, if they dig a little into their family background, I feel a strong connection with the men who went to both world wars. Both my father and father in law fought in WW2, and my maternal grandfather was taken prisoner in WW1. Not only that my children are probably very lucky to exist at all, given that their great grandfathers on their dad's side faced each other across the Somme (when they met after WW2, they got on famously and compared gun positions).

So it is of them I think on Remembrance Day. In our immediate family we were very lucky as my father and his two brothers both came home from the war unscathed, and my grandfather probably owes his survival in WW1 to having been taken prisoner. Spouse's grandfather was also incredibly fortunate to be wounded just before the Great Push on the Somme, therefore missing the worst of it.

But scratch the surface and tragedy does lurk underneath. My maternal grandmother lost two brothers, as well as her fiance.

I am fortunate enough to have in my possession a letter from the padre to my grandmother telling her of the loss of her fiance, which moves me to tears every time I read it.

His name was Jack Towns and having been hit in the stomach in a battle (I don't know which) on 26 March 1915 he was left on the field by the captain who bound him up, as there were no stretchers to bear him from the battle field.

The padre who wrote to my grandmother later went back on the field to look for him in the dark, and despite numerous enquires couldn't find a trace of Jack. I think it's the sparseness of the prose, and the total unsentimentality of it that affects me. The padre speaks of the men he talked to "Some wanted water, others a smoke, others just a few moment's talk. So you see, I walked up and down the whole fo the field. I spoke to as far as I can make out every living soul there. Dead men I did not examine for time was valuable, and there was no light." The next day he returned to what he describes as "the continuation of the strafe"where he describes things as being "a little hot". Obviously at this point he was unable to continue searching for Jack, but when things got calmer he continued to make his enquiries and drew a blank, and so the padre concludes that Jack is dead. The letter ends: "The only chance would appear to be that he might be a wounded pensioner; but one point which I have not mentioned settles that . 1000 men were extended line upon line across a battlefield on the night of the 26th. They linked hands & walked slowly across the field picking up every living man. After they had passed only the dead remaned. And the Turks supplied us with a list of wounded prisoners. Jack was not one of them. I optimist as I am, am absolutely convinced that poor old Jack died where he fell."

My grandmother went on to marry my grandfather, who I think I am right in saying was one of Jack's friends. I'm glad for her that she found that peace and happiness, but this year more then ever, I think about Jack and honour the memory of the man who might have become my grandfather, but who like so many fell too soon and too young.

Anthem for a Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
--Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen

1 comment:

Marie said...

Thank you for posting that. Lest we forget - yes - we must not.