I stopped writing blogs ten months ago. I popped back to comment on Curry and Churchill but that was as long ago as January and February. Now, however, I think there are things I must say or I shall burst!
I gave up blogging for two reasons. I seemed to be saying the same things in slightly different ways over and over and getting nowhere. Every time I grumbled about something that seemed to me wrong or stupid something even worse happened.
I thought I could find something better to do with my time, so I did. I decided to tell the story of my father’s experiences in Flanders, Greece and Palestine during the First World War. (Yes, I really do mean my Father and not my Grandfather.) Inevitably, I have also been trying to look at the modern world through his eyes, like this item from The Sun on July 16th.
How on earth would I begin to explain to my father the convolutions and complications involved with a woman who changes to a man and then goes back to being a woman so that she can have a baby – father unknown – and then demands that the law of the land is changed so that he can be registered as the father. Since children need a mother and a father perhaps he should be registered as both — although that is still a lie, because he isn’t.
Let’s get back to my father and my memoir. Everyone knows the horrors of the trenches; most people have heard of the disaster that was Gallipoli; but Palestine? That was something to do with Laurence of Arabia, wasn’t it? Well, yes – he was there, along with many thousands of assorted troops from Britain, France, Australia and India, as well as local Arabs.
It hasn’t been an easy task. While I was describing the first couple of years of his training it was often quite amusing There was plenty of frustration but also a lot of fun. When “Tubby” moved to France in 1916 telling the story became emotionally much more difficult. My father was a small, quiet, very gentle man. The thought of him in the trenches was horrible. Soaking myself in eyewitness accounts and sorting through endless photos day after day left me feeling like a chewed rag.
Then he was sent to Salonika. He’d never talked about Flanders and I had no idea he’d ever been in Greece. This was a strange discovery and very interesting. The whole story became even more fascinating when he went to Egypt.
From there he walked all the way to Jerusalem, interrupted by some rather nasty battles along the way.
In this photo, dated 9th December, 1917, the Mayor of Jerusalem tries to surrender the city to two British Tommies of the London Regiment.
Then he returned to Flanders just in time to win a medal, about six weeks before the Armistice.
I began by telling the story for the family — it’s a wonderful example of how a very ordinary man came to do extraordinary things. Now I’m wondering if it could find a wider audience, because people I’ve talked to are amazed to hear about this “other” war. At the moment I’m struggling to edit the fourth or fifth draft so perhaps I’d better finish that first.
My father was not a churchgoer. He pooh-poohed everything to do with the Church of England, mainly on the grounds of hypocrisy. He saw hypocrites everywhere and wanted nothing to do with them. The antics of the present Anglican church would have proved how right he was to be wary. On the other hand he would have been horrified to know that these days you can lose your job just for quoting from the Bible.
He wouldn’t have understood “unplatforming” or “safe spaces” either. Foxholes and dugouts were safe spaces for him. He was fairly left wing and delighted in discussion and argument where facts mattered and you could give as good as you got in verbal battles. If I’d tried to tell him that nowadays feelings trump facts he’d have thought I’d gone raving mad.
That is what has encouraged me to begin blogging again.
I don’t want you to get the impression that the book I am writing is unrelieved gloom. Tubby and his mates found plenty to laugh about. In this little scene they are in the Judean Hills in early 1918. They are almost at the end of the supply lines and food is short.
These hills are what stopped Richard Lionheart and they did their best to stop us, too. For most of our route there was a precipice on one side and a steep hillside on the other. It was a long, arduous trudge, with my pack feeling as though it were gaining weight with every step I took.
Finally we reached the crest of the first range of hills and descended into a valley and to a village called Enab. This place looked closer to paradise than anywhere we’d been in months. The hillsides were wooded, covered with orchards of olive and fig trees or terraced for vineyards. There was even a monastery, where wine was made. Not that that helped the troops much; the officers had most of it before it ran out! Here we stayed for over a week.
Needless-to-say, paradise was an illusion. The trees were bare of fruit and the torrential rain not only soaked everything, but seriously impeded the camel convoys. A camel’s feet are designed for sand, not mountain passes. Heavily laden as they were they kept slipping and sliding on the wet, rocky tracks and too often these falls caused serious and even fatal injuries. After a few days “Someone” found 2,000 donkeys from “Somewhere” which were much more sure-footed on the steep rough slopes. Sometimes miracles still happened!
The extra supplies they brought in were desperately needed, mainly for the transport animals.
We were utterly exhausted so we stayed in our bivvies and groused. There was quite a lot to grumble about.
‘I don’t want to grumble,’ Charles said, ‘but I’m bloody cold. As well as food I wish they’d issue us with some winter woollies. It would have been bitterly cold last night, even if I hadn’t been soaked to the skin.’
‘Thank God for the socks I got in one of those parcels,’ I said. ‘My boots have had it.’
I stuck out my feet in front of the other three, showing how the sole was coming loose on one boot and the toecap was flapping on the other.
‘Don’t be hard on them,’ George said. ‘Think where they’ve been. First the desert, then the sandhills around Jaffa, then the Palestine plain and now these bloody foothills. No wonder they’re falling to pieces.’
‘Not as bad as the animals,’ Lanky piped up. If he worried about anything it was most likely to be about the four-legged troops. ‘D’you know,’ he paused, looking solemnly around at us. ‘The horses have been on half rations for nearly a month.’
‘So’ve we,’ said Charles.
‘They didn’t get oranges and things when we did,’ Lanky insisted. ‘Those really bucked us up, remember. One transport bloke told me some of the horses have been trying to eat the leather of their harnesses.’
‘I wonder if they’d like my boots,’ I said.
‘Better hang on to them,’ George said. ‘You may be glad to have them to gnaw on yourself soon, by the look of you.’
I looked around at the other three and I could see what he meant. The truth was, like the horses, we were all half starved.
The three of them returned my gaze, then George said, ‘Look on the bright side. Far fewer flies and bugs around now.’ He grinned and his face was transformed. That at least was true, though the cold and wet seemed to have no effect on the lice.