A licence to murderNovember 9, 2018
My granddad’s funeral, in 1979, was the first funeral I’d attended for anyone really close. I was 17, and it was a very foggy day, which seemed fitting to mark the passing of someone I saw as very special.
I really looked up to my granddad. He was a very humble and modest person – quite shy and reserved, but also very warm and compassionate with a quirky sense of humour. He used to write me silly poems.
My grandparents on my mum’s side lived in Yorkshire, in the north of England.
One day, when I was about 9 or 10 years old, me and my sister were sitting with Granddad in their living room. We asked him, “Granddad, what was the happiest day of your life?”
The answer left us too shocked for words.
“The happiest day of my life? That was when I was shot in the leg!”
Shooting was what happened to people in Westerns and crime thrillers. We simply couldn’t imagine our granddad being shot – and certainly not on the happiest day of his life!
“Why?” we gasped, once we found our breath.
“Because that meant I no longer had to fight in the First World War! It was the happiest day of my life.”
My granddad is sitting at the back in this photo. I’m the little tot in red on the right, sitting on my mum’s knee, with my father sitting in front. My grandma is sitting at the front, and my sister is on the left, being held by my cousin.
We knew that Granddad had fought in the First World War, but we had never discussed it, or even thought about it – because he’d never spoken about it to me or my sister before. And I don’t think I ever heard him mention it again. I always thought that was due to his natural reserve, but since then I’ve learned that it was quite common for men who fought in the First World War not to want to talk about their experiences.
Details about my granddad’s experiences in the Great War are sadly very vague. I’ve been told that he fought at Ypres, in 1917, and that he was in charge of at least one mule. He was born in September 1899, so he may well have been below the military age of 18. I’d love to find out more.
What I do know is that he came out of the war a committed pacifist – so much so, that he was against going to war in 1939. At that time, few people knew about the atrocities that were being carried out under Hitler’s regime, but my grandparents did take in refugees from Europe, even before the Second World War broke out. My mother remembers an impassioned argument between one of the refugees, and my granddad, over whether Britain should enter the Second World War.
The war that turned many against war
The First World War was known as “the war to end all wars”, and many veterans returned from the experience with their hearts set against war. Harry Patch, the last surviving combat veteran of the First World War, told The Sunday Times on 7th November, 2004, after meeting Germany’s only surviving veteran from the First World War:
We’ve had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?
I think my granddad would have wholeheartedly agreed with that. Like my granddad, Patch also refused to talk about his wartime experiences, until he was approached by the BBC in 1998. Patch had another thing in common with my granddad too – a wife called Doris! I think they would have got on well.
In his book, The Last Fighting Tommy, Patch wrote:
We came across a lad from A company. He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he said: ‘Shoot me’. He was beyond human help and, before we could draw a revolver, he was dead. And the final word he uttered was ‘Mother.’ I remember that lad in particular. It’s an image that has haunted me all my life, seared into my mind.
I sometimes wonder what kind of horrors my granddad witnessed, and whether he had to kill or wound anyone during the combat.
Memorials used for political ends
In 2014, I was appalled when the UK government announced plans to commemorate the start of the First World War. The plans seemed to have a celebratory tone, and I was particularly concerned that they might be trying to lead us down a path of war fever, rousing the population for a big bombing campaign on Syria.
The First World War commemorations were to start in Glasgow, which was hosting the Commonwealth Games that year. I thought this was a particularly bizarre choice of venue, because Glasgow during the First World War is remembered for rent strikes and anti-government agitation that led to the “Red Clydeside” protests of 1919, when the Red Flag was raised in George Square, and workers who had recently fought in the trenches fought with police.
The day after David Cameron’s government announced its commemoration plans, the letters page of the local Herald newspaper was full of letters expressing anger at the celebratory tone of the plans. In the end, the commemoration in Glasgow, and in the wider UK, was much more muted and respectful than initially proposed.
Politicians continue to use memories of this dreadful conflict to promote their personal military interests. Just this week, during a memorial tour of towns and villages near the locations of the battlefields of the First World War, French president Emmanual Macron called for the formation of a “true European army” to “protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the US.”
Source This photo of the French town of Vaux, taken in 1918, shows how the conflict was brought to the homes of people who were not directly involved.
War has always been brutal, but somehow the horrors of the First World War remain alive in people’s minds even a century after the event, after all of those who were involved have passed on. Maybe it’s due to the photography and films of the battles and the soldiers, or maybe it’s the technological developments like poison gas, powerful explosives and aerial bombing, that broadened the destruction and brought warfare to the homes of non-combatants.
Or maybe it’s the sheer number of casualties and conscripts, which meant that the vast majority of families in Europe, and many families in countries outside Europe, have ancestors who were involved in the conflict. Most of my friends have, like me and my sister, had grandfathers or great grandfathers who fought in the First World War, and some who lost their lives.
The war poet Siegfried Sassoon unleashed a lot of anger at the Menin Gate, the First World War memorial at Ypres in Belgium, describing it as a “sepulchre of crime” in his poem On Passing the New Menin Gate.
Source Field Marshall Herbert Plumer at the unveiling of the Menin Gate in 1927.
The Menin Gate, opened in 1927, commemorates the British soldiers whose bodies were never found.
(The Salient refers to the area around Ypres where most of the battles were fought.)
Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate, –
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?
Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
The armies who endured that sullen swamp.
Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for evermore’ the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.
Main photo shows soldiers from the Cheshire Regiment at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Source