Saturday, 1 July 2006

Somme Day

If my grandfather had been killed during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 there are 77 of us that would not be alive today.

Just now, the Last Post was being bugled on the TV during the 90th anniversary remembrance ceremony. Those gatherings are important and we should not forget. It made me pause thinking about my own family.

My grandfather may not have been at the Somme but he was at Ypres. I have a copy of his war records as he joined up through the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. It even includes his medical records. He didn't spend much time at the front though I think any time must have been a nightmare. He was gassed on a number of occasions which was quite a curious weapon at the time. No-one can be sure but some family think it was the gassing that turned him crazy. One moment a charming man and the next a violent bastard who terrorised his wife and many children. The emotional scars being passed down to us next generations even 90 years later.

As an example of his mental brutality, years later during the Blitz on London he would take his very young children onto the roof of their house to watch the planes bombing overhead. He would say that if God was meant to take them then they were not going to hide in the bomb shelter. My mother was one of those children but she does not remember and I wonder if it is somewhere in her subconcious.

When the bugles play think of those that died, suffered or were left behind, and spare a thought for those that lived and went on to terrorise their own families.

PS. I just looked up his dates... amongst other campaigns he was involved in the Third Battle of Ypres which is often referred to as the Battle of Passchendaele. He was first gassed on 20 August 1917. It was called "mild" and he was back at the front less than 2 weeks later. Previous to that he had had gunshot wounds at Vimy Ridge. He was gassed again (I am not sure where) on 16 February 1918 which is listed as "severe".

Photos of Passchendaele

Photos and memories of Passchendaele

Original Comments:

Stegbeetle said...

My Grandmother's two brothers were both killed in France during the First World War, although I'm not sure specifically where and when.

Gas, wire, mud and death, we can only dimly imagine the Hell on earth of trench warfare and the waves of young men waiting to meet their destiny.

We will remember them and their loved ones whose lived were touched by their trauma.

Saturday, July 01, 2006 11:09:00 AM

Cheryl said...

I can't help noticing from your second link that the dead of the 1915 and 1916 battles were still there, presumably rotting away in the mud just where they had fallen.
Having to trench in through that and clamber over it all would have sent me quite completely cuckoo, never mind gas.

Saturday, July 01, 2006 3:02:00 PM

MrsDoF said...

"spare a thought for those that lived and went on to terrorise their own families."
That sentence hit home for me. My dad was in the US Navy during the Korean Conflict and was wounded in 1951. He collected a 60% DAV check for the rest of his days.
Seven operations on his left leg, two on his right, and a specially fitted car to accomodate his afflictions.
Sweetest guy ever when he was sober, but mean as hell when he had been drinking.
I can remember being about age 6 or so and calming him down after a night terror where was reciting the parts of a machine gun.
War is a terrible idea whose time should have been long gone.

Saturday, July 01, 2006 5:17:00 PM

Jo said...

Some years ago I went round the battlefields, and spent some time at a section of trench system which has been kept as a permananet memorial to the soldiers of the Somme. It was an area held by the Newfoundlanders, and is dominated by this huge Caribou statue looking down over the battlefield. The site is owned in perpetuity by the Canadian government.

Even there, even standing in the trenches (all grass covered now of course) the carnage is still unimaginable. The German lines were no more than 100 yards away - you can stride over to them in less than a minute, through the deeply rutted, shell pitted field. And yet the soldiers who went over the top that that day never got close, never had a chance.

And then the cemetries...full of young men little older than my children...

And the Lutyens memorial to those with no grave at Thiepval...60,000 of them.

If I recall Doris, Vimy Ridge was the scene of terrible fighting and was taken later by the Canadians with major losses. It was also the scene of one of the biggest underground 'mine' detonations of the war, as Allied tunnelers dug under the German lines and let of this immense explosion. Which was - I think I'm right - heard as far away as London.

It's shattering - even after all these years.

I can quite believe it destroyed your grandfather's mind. I guess there must have been so many like him suffering unrecognised Post Traumatic Stress...

Going up on the roof with the bombers overhead with his family sounds perhaps like the action of a man who deep down didn't understand why he had lived, maybe didn't believe he should have when his friends were killed...?

Sunday, July 02, 2006 1:33:00 AM

doris said...

Stegbeetle Have you looked up assuming your relatives were citizens of the Commonwealth.

Cheryl One of the soldiers said on that website the only firm thing underfoot were the bodies of the dead. Sheer madness. I agree that would be enough never mind the gas.

MrsDoF How awful for you too. War is appalling and it isn't just about the horrifying stuff at the front but also the after effects.

Jo Thank you for sharing your visit. I haven't been on such a trip but I was once at a museum in recent times where they had recreated a trench. It wasn't even muddy or knee high in water but it was appalling.

Vimy Ridge was a major victory for the Canadians and interestingly was the one that my grandfather made a big deal about. I'm not sure but I don't think he was so "proud" of Passchendaele. It is an awful business. (BTW my grandfather is not Canadian and happened to be over in the States before the war started and joining up in Canada was one way that citizens felt they could do their bit for the war effort.)

Nearly a hundred years later the fact he joined the Canadian army, and that they have their war records better organised and publicly available, unlike the UK, means that I was able to verify some of the family legends about him.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006 11:32:00 AM

decrepitoldfool said...

Politicians don't suffer the horrors of war, nor the after-horrors. If they did they'd make more than the perfunctory effort to avoid it, instead of making grandiose speeches about it.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006 4:29:00 PM

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