It’s always been a very sobering moment when I’ve told someone that my father fought in the First World War and they ask “Did he survive?”
Had he not survived I would be at least twenty years older than I am, and to be taken for 50 when you’re only 30 is certainly sobering, at least until you can get to a mirror, at which point you realise it’s their maths at fault not your face!
The TV programmes about the Somme have been more than I can cope with, even though my father wasn’t there. This time 100 years ago he was in France but further north and before the battle ended he was in Salonika. Then he went to Egypt, fought his way, literally step by step, to Jerusalem, was wounded so never got to Jericho and then returned to France for the last few months of the war.
Over the last two years, watching programmes about WW1 and in conversations with friends I’ve heard the word “damage” used over and over again, as if that needed to be emphasised. One only has to watch the News to know what sort of “damage” any sort of war causes. And, yes, my father was left damaged; by the time he was demobbed he was extremely deaf, though he rarely mentioned the fact. He had also won the Distinguished Conduct Medal, but he didn’t mention that, either.
But, and it’s a very big but, he would have been horrified if he thought anyone had believed him to be “damaged”.
Most of his friends and colleagues were also old Tommies. They were staunch, loyal, generous and utterly dependable. There were one or two ‘Eeyores’ among them, but most of them had a great sense of humour and also, perhaps surprisingly, a great sense of fun. They had been through unimaginable horrors and having learned to cope they continued to cope. In 1939 they took “Keep calm and carry on” in their stride.
I often wonder what my father would make of Now.
I have no idea if he would have voted to Leave or Remain but he would have been disgusted by the sheer nastiness the referendum provoked. Surprisingly, for someone of his generation, he was not racist, though he was slightly anti-semitic, and loathed Picasso and the Pope. He had learned to have great admiration for the Arab camel drivers in the desert, and though he and his comrades complained about the filth the Turks left behind them he respected their courage as soldiers.
As a cricket lover one of his heroes was W G Grace, whom he watched play many times. Another hero was Leary Constantine, and anyone who could play that beautiful game so elegantly had to be all right.
Then, take football. (Easier for the Welsh than the English at the moment.) If they camped in one place in the desert for more than a few days one of their first off-duty tasks was to clear space for a pitch. He was most generous so I don’t suppose he would have grudged Wayne Rooney his pay. I’m the family member who thinks it ridiculous that Rooney earns three times my school teacher son’s annual salary—in a week. However, he would have assumed that high pay demanded equally high standards of play and behaviour, to say nothing of some sort of repentance and recompense when you let your country down.
The old are set in their ways and we must move with the times. Of course! Where would I be without my iPad and iPhone? If only we could hold on to some of the old-fashioned standards and values that helped to make men like my father. They deserve more than mere remembrance.