Archive for November 11th, 2009

A moment’s pause

November 11, 2009

No bad science – just a small bit of family history.

Dr Aust, like many folk of a slightly pessimistic disposition, has to remind himself periodically that he is actually pretty lucky.

One of Dr Aust’s pieces of luck has been to live in an era where major wars have been absent, and compulsory military service ditto.

Dr Aust’s forebears were not so lucky. Or perhaps they were lucky in different ways, since both Dr Aust’s grandfathers survived military service and war, one in the Great War and the other in World War Two.

Dr Aust never met his paternal grandfather, who died a few years before Dr Aust was born, and who many years earlier in 1917 had fought at Passchendaele (the Third Battle of Ypres).  All that Dr Aust knows of his paternal grandad comes from Dr Aust’s father – himself later a national service conscript officer, though spared war service by the luck of being in a branch of the army (the engineers) who were not much in demand for the Korean War.

According to Dr Aust’s dad, the old man attributed his surviving WW1 to two things: first, being a decent shot with a Lewis gun (which meant that as a gunner he was always a fair few yards back from the advancing front line of his infantry platoon); and second, Bartonella quintana, (better known as trench fever), which got him “invalided out” of the line.

When I read the obituaries this Summer for Harry Patch, the last surviving British infantry soldier of WW1, I found that Patch had been a Lewis gunner at Passchendaele too, losing all the other members of his gun crew on one single day in September 1917. Dr Aust’s paternal grandfather, like so many others, lost his best friend, but at least he had the good fortune to make it home to his family.

Dr Aust’s maternal grandfather, the man I used to call Grandad when I was a kid, was the only professional soldier in the family, joining the army in the late 1930s and eventually rising to the rank of RSM (regimental sergeant major). He served through the WW2 North African campaign, and then in Burma, and after the war in the closing days of British India.

I was reminded of my maternal Grandad  a few months ago by a nice post of Dr Grumble’s which you can read here.

According to my mother, Grandad never spoke a word about the war to anyone in the family. Not a word in thirty years. I didn’t know until very recently that on the day before he died he made an exception, though probably an involuntary one. Having been hospitalised by the first stroke of a series that would quickly kill him, he suddenly wanted to tell his wife (my maternal grandmother) and his daughter (my mother) about the war. The memories had been buried deep for three decades or more, but not gone. I was reminded of something I read earlier this year about Britain’s last surviving veteran of the Western Front, Henry Allingham:

In November [2008], [Henry Allingham] took part in ceremonies to mark the 90th anniversary of the end of WWI.

Speaking before events began, Mr Allingham said he couldn’t forget the war even if he wanted to.

“I saw too many things I would like to forget but I never will forget them, I never can forget them,” he said.

Both Patch and Allingham long refused to talk about the war, but changed their minds late on in their lives, feeling that the memory of their lost friends, and the terrible cost of war, meant their recollections ought to be heard, especially by the young. I wonder sometimes whether Dr Aust’s grandparents would have felt the same if they had lived into their 80s or 90s. Anyway, read Dr Grumble’s post and see if you can work out why it brought back memories of his Grandad for Dr Aust.

Or read the obituaries for Henry Allingham here, and Harry Patch here and here.

And see why Dr Aust will be observing two minutes silence at 11 o’clock on the 11th.

Which brings me to something else. My Grandad, who liked to kick a football around with my brother and me, would put his medal ribbons on for Remembrance Day, but the only military badge he habitually wore was a rather odd one which he had on one of his overcoats, and which looked like this.


Now I was curious, as children are, about Grandad’s badge, so I asked him what it was.  And he told me the name of the unit that wore the badge, and that his comrades had been “very brave men”.  So perhaps “never said a word” isn’t absolutely true.

Of course, these very brave men were not all stereotypical white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Grandad himself was a Catholic Irishman, and many of the men he would have served with would have been Indian army troops, or Gurkhas. The expeditions included Burmese regiments, and West African soldiers too. Nothing new there for the British army, actually. When I was hunting about on Wikipedia and Youtube, I found that Indian Army professional soldiers were serving on the Western Front in 1914 at the first Battle of Ypres.

Which somehow reminded me of a bunch of people who have recently been trying to wrap themselves in the British flag, and the symbolism of Britain’s military history, including the World Wars. You can probably guess who I’m thinking of.

As an antidote to their opportunism and unpleasant message, you could try this, or this. Or possibly even this. And there is plenty more on Youtube for those with a taste for history.

Anyway, tomorrow at 11 I will be stopping to think of my two grandfathers – the one I knew and the one I didn’t. And also to spare a thought for all the others – whatever their race and nationality – who served, and especially those who weren’t as fortunate. And for the people they were connected to.

And I’ll try and remind myself, again, that I’m actually pretty lucky.