JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A story for Armistice Day

My grandfather was born in 1899. Just right to serve in two world wars. He was a talented sportsman (played international rugger in the 1920s), and saw many of the best members of his school XV go straight from school into the army, and on to the endless casualty lists. When he left school in the summer of 1917, he went straight into the Durham Light Infantry, and by Armistice Day he was a German prisoner of war.

For years, I thought that the photograph above was taken when he was in his mid 20s. It is only very recently that I discovered he was 18 when it was taken; he had just left school, just swapped his Marlborough uniform for that of the Durham Light Infantry. My younger son goes to the same school, plays rugger on the same pitches, and is also a fly half. I cannot imagine - I have tried, but I cannot cannot - what it can have felt like to be at school, watching the older boys enlist and be killed, week by week, month by month, year by year, knowing that soon it would be your turn. One family lost three sons in quick succession; my grandfather played games in the same team as two of them - these were boys he knew well.

During the second world war, my grandfather joined the Royal Artillery, and just before Christmas 1941 died on active service in Wandsworth, where he ran a searchlight battery. Not very glamorous. This morning I visited his memorial at Mortlake Cemetery, where I was unexpectedly overcome with an intense feeling of grief for a man I've never met, but whose birthday I share.

This afternoon, I was at Twickenham, home of England rugby, and home of the Harlequins at the time my grandfather played for that great club. There I found a team photograph taken before my grandfather's first match for England, against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park in 1922. He looked strangely vulnerable - a mixture of apprehension and excitement. The photograph below was probably taken during that match. V.G. Davies - my grandfather - is on the left. Heaven knows what treatment the spongeman is giving his unfortunate team-mate!


labelga said...

A poignant and beautiful memoir, Joanna. I'm glad that our newspapers on the 90th anniversary of the end of the Great War still tell stories that take one by the throat. Such as the story about a certain day, when 60.000(!?) young soldiers enlisted by the British were killed. The comparison you make with your son and his school bring this closer too.

Nan said...

What a poignant, meaningful posting, Joanna. The sadness, the pain, oh, it's just awful. Thank you so much for this.

Alex said...

My great grandmother lost brothers and cousins in the First World War and a son in the Second. It's impossible to imagine how it must have been to see so many young men go from field to battlefield and never return.

To have photographs and stories like you do, which puts such a dramatically human face on this, makes it even worse.

moaltd said...

Wonderful words - bringing it close to us all with tales of school and international sportsmen - showing what a terrible loss there was.

I was proud to see my son and his friends wearing their poppies this year. They feel it too.

Joanna said...

Thank you all - these kind words mean a great deal to me, because I found yesterday unexpectedly difficult.

I knew very little about my grandfather until this summer - most of what I wrote I found out by research in dusty museums ... I didn't know when or where he died, where he was buried until about a fortnight ago, which is why it was so important to go to the memorial yesterday.

I chose to go on Armistice Day because of it's symbolism. I found myself wondering when prisoners of war knew that peace was coming.

The bravery is humbling. The sacrifice, too.


Magic Cochin said...

A moving and beautifully related memoir. So much grief and horror they witnessed at such a young age.

The Arms Park in 1922 was a bit of a mud bath, the spongeman looks a right character!


PS: I've just read your comment Joanna - I watched a programme on TV last night about the last day of WWI. The officers knew the Armistice was due at 11am but still sent their men to attack right up to the final whistle. Tragic. There were hundreds who died that last morning.

Amanda at Little Foodies said...

A beautiful and moving post Joanna. It is so important that we never forget. It must have been so much harder having only found out where the grave was only a few weeks before.

Little said something yesterday which was obviously repeated from something he'd heard but humbling all the same coming from someone so young. "If it wasn't for all the people who died in war Mummy we wouldn't be living the life we live now."

... and Small is still putting his poppy on with pride every day saying "I'm going to wear this to remember the people who died in battle."

So innocent.

Toffeeapple said...

A very moving piece Joanna, thank you. My father was born the year after your grandfather and because he was a Welsh miner (a protected profession) he didn't serve in either war though he eventually sustained injuries in the mines.

I am moved every year when I see the parades on TV and hear them on the radio and I think I feel more saddened as I get older.

I'm glad you know more about your grandfather now.

Cabbage Tree Farm said...

What a sad story, but interesting to read and neat that you have the photos to cherish.

Joanna said...

Celia, thank you for that little piece of the jigsaw - it's another of those things that make you sharply aware of the human cost of WW1: losing someone on the morning of Armistice Day - that's another thing I can't imagine, however hard I try.

Amanda, thank you for kind words. And your children's words and actions speak volumes for you - it's not forgetting in action, and I think that now that the last of the WW1 soldiers are nearly all gone, it is up to us to make sure that they are not forgotten, because Little is right.

Toffee Apple: the life of a miner is something that I am humbled by too - all our comforts paid for by their sweat for so long, in peace as much as in war. Thank you for your kind words

Cabbagetreefarm - thank you. You're right, I'm very lucky to have photographs to cherish, even if it bores my children silly ;)

Thank you all for such kind thoughts and words ...


Cottage Smallholder said...

I read this post a couple of days ago and it has stayed with me since then. Haunting.

Thank you for sharing.