The fathers and mothers of many of my contemporaries fought inWorld War 2, some I never knew about in my youth. My daa was in Air Sea Rescue. Roy’s dad walked from the jungle of Burma a very thin man in need of some northern pies. Duncan’s father was captured at Dunkirk and became a slave of the 3rd Reich breaking stones in Poland when He was forced marched at the war’s end then abandoned as the Russians approached.Gus’s dad rescued his future father in law from the shark infested Atlantic as he helped defend the convoys. Our parents had lived to tell the tale and bring us into this world. My dad said nothing about his experiences, but I was told later it was a dirty war. Dirt and mud and millions dead make memories of the First World war almost unbearable. My great uncle Ned spoke softly with no malice of his days in the trenches.I wrote the piece below for Meet at the Gate a couple of years back.
Less we forget, oops we forget.
Dedicated to; Harry Patch, William Stone, Henry Allingham.
For the survivors from two world wars, and those who did not pull through. illusn, warrior
Madeleine showed signs of being a talented writer in Year 9 when aged 14 she wrote this poem:
No Man’s Land
The vacuum between good and evil;
man and monster;
victory and defeat;
Between hell above and hell below.
All men that step there sure-footed,
All those who stride out, and the others-
Whose last reluctant motion,
Lands him in the vast ocean of souls.
Slowly absorbing, consuming, devouring, entwining,
Bullet and body alike.
Like a crippling tower he falls,
His last breath to be of blood and dirt,
As his face is enveloped in the land all men dread, yet yearn to own.
No man’s land it is, and will always be.
© Madeleine Kennedy 2008
It makes me cry when I read it and no doubt I will I will look on with pride as a friend reads it out at the village Remembrance Day service. I would love to read it aloud myself but I get overcome with emotion which is intensified by my good fortune at having known so many who survived and my sadness for those on all sides who did not.
I missed the Second World War but was fortunate to live with two people, and get to know others, who came through it. My mum, Jenny Dickinson, was in the WRAF stationed first in the Oxford then Ipswich area.
illus My dad Jack was in RAF Air Sea Rescue on the Suez canal and ended his war in Aden now the Yemen, which was a hotbed like Iraq today. His time in the middle- east gave him great respect for its people especially Egyptians for their peaceful demeanour and the Sikhs for their cleanliness and fighting prowess.
Lest we forget, and we do, thousands of peoples from the West Indies, India & Africa and other British ‘Empire’ countries, fought on both sides in both world wars not to mention the African Americans and ‘Indians’. Recently I heard a tale about how the Navajos were used in American ‘Intelligence’ to convey messages in their native tongue which is so distinct from all other languages that the Germans could not decipher it. Our countries conveniently ‘forgot’ these efforts after the war with racial prejudice continuing for many years in the activities of the Klan in USA and the difficulties immigrants from the West Indies and other Commonwealth countries were to experience here. The fact that Obama, the next President of USA is mixed race, or black, will perhaps usher in a new dawn of mutual respect amongst all peoples. Sticking my neck out I would love it if Obama would invite Bin Laden to talks about an end to all the killing, let’s get together to make this world a better place. (ed. He didn’t, did he?)
Neither parent told me directly of their own hardships during the war but the way they conducted their lives set an example for me. Honesty & trustworthiness, dedication to task and a refusal to be defeated all came from their example as did respect for others and having fear of no one, especially authority figures. My father was fearless, they called him ‘Big Taff’ in Burnley and I heard it said that “He had muscles in his spit Taffy.” He taught weight training, ran ‘physical culture’ shows where I saw Bernard Stone ‘The Silver Statue’ ripple his muscles to music long before Tony Holland won Opportunity Knocks with his muscle control routine. I also got to shake hands with the then Mr. Universe Earl Maynard who later had small parts in Hollywood movies as a baddie. In my mid-teens I was doing work outs with weights long before sports halls got equipped with multi-gyms. We used disc dumbbells and a metal bench my dad made. He trained us to do repeats of eights with weights inside our capability building strength & resilience rather than bulk. I never developed muscles like him but when he last saw my son as a 3 year old he must have observed that his prowess had merely skipped a generation. During the day he was a steeplejack and demolition man with a licence to knock down chimneys with his hands and/or explosives. Whilst working in Glasgow the year of my birth there 1950 he lost a close buddy who fell from top of a factory chimney, after that he never fully committed to close friendship. Yet he had great love for and was loved by many who knew him. He often came home covered in soot which he would clean off his face using margarine and newspaper. It left mascara like lines around his eyes but I never heard of anyone who ventured to comment disparagingly! Miners in Burnley used to bear the same mark of their day jobs. I had the good fortune to work a few weeks with him on some factory chimneys during my breaks from college. I used to read Sons & Lovers in his van during my lunch breaks. He never wanted me to be a steeplejack and I could understand why so I became a teacher of which he was proud.
My mum, Jenny, I believe, lost a pilot friend during the war but never spoke about it her only war memories being the beauty of Oxford city. It was her uncle Ned from Netherton who most impressed me. Coming from the North East he had been in the trenches during World War One and told me a remarkable tale. He had joined up with a friend who he had known since starting school. When a mate on his side took a bullet he turned to tell his old school chum on his right only to find he had been killed too. Great uncle Ned survived to tell me about it in 1961 because machine guns pause slightly between bullets. Ned got lucky like Harry Patch, William Stone and Henry Allingham who have survived to this day and amazingly represent one of each of the 3 services.
This week on television I observed Dan Snow’s deep embarrasment as he tried to come to terms with his own feeling of a need to apologise to a descendant of a soldier who died as a result of his great grandfather’s lack of attention to reality during the Battle of the Somme. Dan has no guilt attached, he was not there, but it was fascinating to hear aired so prominently the fact that so many had died as a result of their leaders’ incompetence. Almost as long as I have lived I have cursed the ‘leaders’ on all sides in the First World War. I wish I could go back in time to that famous impromptu game of football played on Christmas Day 1914 between soldiers from both sides in the mud of the trenches and say, “OK chaps, Happy Christmas the war is over”, especially if I could time it to intervene when the Brits were winning by the odd goal.
In some municipal building, in Bishop Stortford I believe, there is displayed in a glass cabinet a trophy awarded to the local townsfolk for their part in ‘the war to end all wars’ from the Lord of the Manor. I was shaken to find the date inscribed on it was 1815, the end of The Napoleonic War. War has a way of continuing regardless of best intent as we witness today in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 110 year old war veteran, Harry Patch is quoted in this week’s Radio Times (w/e 14nov) as saying that he remains scornful of anyone who seeks war over peace, “War always finishes with both sides sitting down and talking; why the devil don’t they do that beforehand?” he asked.
illus- This idea was echoed at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival by the writer James Ferguson who wrote “A Million Bullets” after meeting the Taliban in Afghanistan. He says that there is only one way to end that war too, and it means talking to the Taliban.
I believe Lennon was sincere in his refrains, “Give Peace A Chance” and “Stop The Killing Now”. Some may think he was a dreamer but he was not the only one. I for one hope and pray that one day all ‘leaders’ will heed his suggestion to ‘Imagine’. Peace be with you.
Today I heard the Brits sent 100,000 to Korea and a thousand died. Luckily they declined the call to Vietnam or I may have tasted battle.I still hope that Lennon’s words in Imagine will come true.That one day soon they will leap frog the wars and go straight to the reconciliations and rebuildings. Om Mani Padme Hum.