During the centenary of the end of the First World War last November I got to thinking about my grandfathers, who were both victims of war. They were both victims of war in very different ways.
My paternal grandfather Adam who died when I was five years old was a war hero.
Adam was in the ‘heavy brigade’. When I first heard Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” I was the only person in my class at school who knew what the light brigade was. I knew this because Adam was with the ‘heavy brigade’. The ‘heavy brigade’ were the ones who brought the field guns to the front.
In order to bring the field guns to the front, he was in charge of a team of two horses. I recall that I saw a photograph of those two horses once, and how I wish I could find it. One horse was called Bess. I really cannot remember the name of the other horse.
Granddad told me a tale one day. He had visited the field latrine (I have a few more posts about field latrines and latrine humour that he shared with me, but I will leave that for now). On returning, a corporal was whipping one of his horses. Adam felled the man with one blow. Adam was the eldest of ten siblings who had been orphaned and pretty much brought up on the streets of Manchester at the beginning of the twentieth century, and had apparently acquired something of a reputation as a street fighter.
The corporal, lying on his back in the mud, espied a young lieutenant and cried: “Sir! He has assaulted a non-commissioned officer.”
What you have to understand is that assaulting a non-commissioned officer was actually a shooting offence: Granddad could have been executed at dawn the next day.
The lieutenant replied: “Corporal, I have two things to say. The first thing is I did not see the man assault you, and I have no understanding of why you are lying in the mud. And the second is that in my opinion there is only one thing worse than assaulting a non-commissioned officer, and that is beating another chap’s horse.”
I think there is a lot to say for that aspect of English culture that we lost.
Adam was gassed with mustard gas in the trenches and suffered lung disease for the rest of his life. As I say, he died when I was five years old; but oh my goodness, how much I learned from him.
My maternal grandfather Albert was also a hero in an entirely different way.
Albert was a gentle man, a man for whom fighting (and God forbid, killing) was anathema. Albert had been excused military service in the First World War due to his poor eyesight. Unfortunately, my grandmother Mary revealed to all and sundry that if Albert had ever been in combat he would have messed his pants.
One day Albert was confronted by a woman, a woman who nowadays would no doubt wish to serve on regulatory tribunals, who handed him a white feather. Albert, shocked and shaking, ran all the way home and indeed by the time he got home, he had messed his pants.
Albert was a victim of war— a good man who knew who he was and knew that combat was not for him.
Albert felt ashamed of his role or lack thereof in the First World War for the rest of his life. He had absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. When Adam died when I was five years old, Albert became both my grandfathers. He was a moderating, kind, reasoned influence upon me for the rest of his life, and will be for the rest of mine.
I salute them both. Two victims and two heroes.