Sunday 23 February 2014

Salient Point

My grandfather's battalion - 3 Durham Light Infantry - on the way to the front - note the shell bursting in the background

I am enjoying reading 1913 The Year Before The Great War. This is a clever book because it deliberately resists hindsight and describes a time when people did not actually expect a war, still less a cataclysmic one.

Because of the centenary we are hearing a lot about the First World War (now there's a hindsight-based term which only makes sense after 1945!) and it is right that today there is debate about causes and responsibility.

But I am surprised how little acknowledgement there is about how raw and present the Great War (better term) is today.

I think this is because people are most focused on those who died in that war - quite rightly - but they forget that most of the combatants survived and were vigorous, influential people right up to fairly recent times.

In my case I was very much influenced as I grew up by my grandfather Arthur Floyd to whom I and my brothers were very close. He never much spoke about his war but had fought right through from 1915 until the end, returning in 1919, and beyond doubt his whole take on life must have been shaped by his experience as a young man who volunteered and played his part.

I remember my grandfather affectionately as someone who had a thin veneer of old-fashioned and conservative values but in reality was a playful and thoughtful person who made up his own mind.

Recently my Mum lent me a box of about 300 letters which he wrote during the war to his fiancée (later his wife and my granny). I have only so far dipped into these but was astonished and much uplifted to find how he was very far from being an unthinking cog in the British army's massive deployment of men.

I shouldn't be surprised but don't we all have a rather monochrome and undifferentiated impression of what it must have been like?

Among other revelations the letters show Grandpa...

• Joking that he rather approved his men wanting to shoot a snooty colonel during a near mutiny.

• Discussing with fellow officers the pointlessness of their expensive swords (which they had to pay for) - they tried to spear fish in a pond with them and agreed that was the only thing they might be useful for.

• Trying to resign his commission with some of his friends because his mess fees were more than his pay (a problem sorted I believe by Lloyd George - the army hadn't worked out what to do about able volunteer officers without private means).

• Arranging a memorial cross (there is a sketch in his letter - and a photo shows it was accurate - I didn't know anybody did this in the midst of the war?) for his fiancee's brother my great uncle Howard - killed in 1916 - Grandpa knew him very well as an older friend. Howard refused a commission out of principle to serve alongside his co-workers in Tyneside and became a respected sergeant.

And yet the same letter goes on to joke and talk about helping families back in Gateshead.

The public record shows appalling suffering by my grandfather's battalion - including releasing gas against the Germans (bringing canisters up the line, letting them off, and then horrible results as the Germans retaliated). Naturally he didn't talk about these things in the letters.

The record also describes a court martial where my grandfather sat in judgement on a soldier who accidentally killed a comrade having failed to remove bullets from his rifle as he returned from the line. I'm pleased to report that Grandpa let him off on the grounds that the poor man was utterly fatigued and could be forgiven for not following procedure.

The record shows that the battalion suffered average casualties, mainly experienced when they were twice nearly overwhelmed by German counter-attacks. The battalion is given credit for holding the line - probably including when my grandfather got his "mention in dispatches".

In the letters there are also lots of reported conversations with French people (quoted in French because unusually he and my grandmother knew French) and, above all, many reports of him playing piano to cheer his men when back from the front! He was an accomplished player with two posh grand pianos in his drawing room. As he played them in later life he must have thought about the times when he played a crummy upright to accompany his men singing.

When life seems oppressive it is sobering to compare it with the life of a 23 year-old lad struggling for months on end to lead his men and survive, surrounded on three sides in the Ypres Salient.