Because my grandfather passed away before I was born, I never knew him. Dad has never really spoken at great length about his father so I have never even had that sense of knowing my grandfather through second hand stories. The one tiny portion that I do know about Grandad’s life is that which held most interest for me as a youngster; his service in the Great War.
Grandad Alex enlisted into the Royal Field Artillery and eventually found himself in Italy where he served in 58th Battery of the 35th Brigade. His Brigade had previously served on the Western Front and shortly before arriving in Italy, had been in action at the Battle for Passchendaele. I do not know if my grandfather served in Belgium first, or if he only saw action in Italy. Somewhere in a half forgotten box, my father keeps a small collection of memorabilia that bears testament to his father’s war. It is not an overly impressive stash – there are no gallantry awards in our family; merely a fragile pay book, the standard commemorative cigarette case, a pair of medals (the 1914-18 British War Medal and the Victory Medal) and a few photographs. But to my twelve-year-old self, it was a treasure trove.
Back then, I was most interested in the medals, whilst today, it is the photographs that I find captivating. One picture shows Grandad with some pals in full uniform and 1908 pattern leather webbing, another shows him alone in a portrait pose, whilst the third is of a group of men in an Italian piazza, feeding pigeons before an ornate fountain. If the scenes and the men in them seem unremarkable to the casual observer, for me, it their plainness that makes them all the more remarkable. The Great War plucked Grandad, his mates and millions like them from ordinary lives and hurled them into the maelstrom of what is perhaps the most devastating conflict in human history.
In the closing months of the war, Grandad’s Brigade saw action on the Italian front: firing in support of the fighting on the Asiago Plateau, the capture of the island of Papadopoli and the crossings of the rivers Piave and Tagliamento. These actions ultimately led to the defeat of the Austrian Army. I find it sad that this campaign is now largely forgotten, overshadowed by the carnage of the Western Front, and possibly played down as a result of the role played by Mussolini’s Italy during Word War Two. The casualty figures for the Italian campaign do not match those of Passchendaele or the Somme, but that is not to say that conditions were necessarily any easier. Many of the men, including my grandfather, fell ill with the malaria that was endemic in the low lying marshlands of the region. Furthermore, the pine forests, which provided shelter from the summer heat would become a scene of hell when they came under artillery bombardment, with trees bursting into flames or being blasted to smithereens, their branches and trunks forming deadly flying splinters that would rip a man to shreds should he be caught in the open. Small wonder that, physically debilitated and mentally scarred, my grandfather never spoke about his experiences to anyone. Dad did tell me this much; after the war, Grandad had nightmares every night for the rest of his life.
Like so many men, Grandad seems to have just returned from the war and got on with the task of building a life. When he was demobilised, my grandfather was barely out of his teens and committing his experiences to paper was probably the least of his concerns. As someone with an interest in history, it is something of a frustration that I know so little about Grandad’s war, which is one of the reasons behind why I felt compelled to write of my experiences in Afghanistan, which I confess seem trivial by comparison. If this lack of personal history is replicated across the world (which I am sure it is), we will soon reach a point at which the tragedy of the Great War will be just another historic conflict.
One way of ensuring that future generations of children retain a personal contact with the Great War is the study of the personal – diaries and photographs, the official – maps and war records and contemporary literature such as Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, the work of the War Poets and Sherriff’s Journey’s End. In his 2001 book Forgotten Victory, Professor Gary Sheffield does much to dispel the myths and misunderstandings that have grown up around the Great War, particularly around the accusations of poor military leadership. Sheffield cautions that most schoolchildren today gain their knowledge of the Great War through their study of Sassoon et al in English rather than History and that this presents a risk of learning only one version of history. I agree. As a lover of the written word, I encourage the study of the war poets and their work, but I strongly believe that theirs is not the only lens through which the Great War should be viewed. Where the war poets do bring value is their great ability to personalise the war for the reader. In that sense, Wilfred Owen’s famous poem, Dulce et Decorum Est speaks to the reader across time, painting a vivid picture of the loss of a comrade to a gas attack while his exhausted unit marches out of the line to a period of rest. Once read, I challenge anyone to ever forget the stanzas in which Owen describes the hapless victim’s last moments of life as he succumbs to the effects of a choking agent:
“Behind that wagon we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;”
Such personalisation can be enhanced by encouraging students to write about the Great War themselves, perhaps even writing poetry. This is the essence of the Never Such Innocence Poetry Competition, an annual event which is being held to commemorate the centenary of the Great War. The 2016-17 competition goes live in September and seeks applications from children aged 9-16 from the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries. By encouraging today’s children to explore the Great War through poetry, this fabulous project will help to maintain awareness of the Great War well into the middle of the 21st Century and beyond.
Major Barry Alexander is a former British Army Nursing Officer who saw action in Helmand Province, Afghanistan while working in support of 1 Royal Anglian and 1 Grenadier Guards. His poetry has been published in the 2011 anthology, Heroes – 100 Poems From the New Generation of War Poets (Ebury Press) and his debut book, On Afghanistan’s Plains is available on Amazon as a paperback and kindle e-book.