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What kind of conversations would we have were my grandfather, a veteran of the First World War, still alive?
Fig.1. Lyn Macdonald, author of ‘They called it Passchendaele’ at the Tynecot Memorial with veteran Jack Wilson MM June 1992
Had he been alive my grandfather, John Arthur Wilson MM, corporal in the Machine Gun Corps, then Flight Cadet and pilot in the RAF, would be 117 years old. He is with me. Cremated in December 1992 his ashes moved with my mother from the North East to Lincolnshire when she remarried. Thought lost, or scattered in error, the urn containing his ashes appeared less than a month ago.
I keep meaning to sit down with him and run through some of the insights I am picking up as I bash through as Masters degree in the First World War. He’s in the shed. He;d like that. He was a shed and garage man. Always up a ladder clearing leaves from a gutter or under a car fixing the exhaust.
I recorded a series of conversations with him in 1989 and then again in 1991 after I’d transcribed the earlier interviews. In due course all 3 1/2 hours of those interviews will be available online. I’ll make this and his photographs available to the Imperial War Museum initiative.
So what would I say?
That Haig knew what he was doing and by all accounts took his lead from Kitchener?
That however awful the first days of the Somme were, the conflict over several months served its purpose of keeping the German army tied to the Western Front while wearing them down.
I’d go through the transcript and ask him to embellish.
I’d certainly ask him to provide the names of as many people as possible who feature in his photographs.
‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ was his favourite movie. I’m sure he’d have sat through ‘The Great War’ when it was broadcast by the BBC in 1964. Could I wish him better eyesight and watch these?
He left school at 14 and beyond looking at the Journal every week he wasn’t a great reader – he picked his way through manuals and being ‘mechanically minded’ loved a specialist book I found him on the engines featured in the planes he trained on and flew. He would have liked a Vicker’s Machine gun! He’d have advised on reconstructing trenches or pillboxes. He’d have gone up in an Avro Trainer or Bristol fighter. He’d have loved Google Maps and published trench maps that he could follow.
On reflection, if I selected for him some of the books I am reading, I could record audio versions which he could listen to through an iPod as he got on with his many daily chores.
Would he stomach my being critical of Churchill?
Fig. 2. World War – a part work my grandfather would have loved, though would never have spent his money on
Of all the publications in my growing collection he’d probably find the complete series of magazines published in 1932/33 that I have most fitting – plenty of pictures and description of the events rather than opinion.
Lyn Macdonald took him to the 75th Anniversary of the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele – I wonder what they said to each other?
And what questions would he have for me?
The dead then are the cartridge empties of today
Fig. 1 Death in Passchendaele exactly as my grandfather described it
Had the public seen, and seen repeatedly, what death looked like between 1914 and 1918 perhaps the public outcry would have brought it to an early end. Or not.
The dead then are the cartridge empties of today.
Beyond comprehending the opportunities of open learning and the theory behind the processes that occur we as ‘educators’ still need to deliver content, to create an event, put on a show, get attention, set the tone for a programme of work. Martin Weller thinks that being media savvy is to add some downloaded graphics or snapshots to a slide, actually, the art and skill of communication as anyone in advertising will tell you is far more able to leave an impression. Making a bar of soap interesting is a challenge, making war interesting should be easy so long as you stick to what attracts interest: fighting and death. Three decades listening to my grandfather and I can only now take on board what it must have been like to be stuck, repeatedly, in a confined space, in harms way, with a buddy or two at your side, horribly wounded and slowly dying.
Fig. 2. Marking the spot where my grandfather buried Dick Piper and Henry Gartenfeld
75 years after these events my grandfather returned to the very spot where this occurred and he broke down to think how they died, and why they died and the lives they never had but deserved, let along the wife and kids one left behind. He never recovered from that trip and died himself a few months later – it was as if death had touched him to the soul and after 97 years he could put it off no longer.
Can a veteran’s story be believed?
As the grandson of a veteran of the First World War I took my grandfather’s stories to be accurate to the letter – though how I visualised his antics as I grew up bore very little to the reality, but rather a boy’s perceptions from his surroundings, TV and books in the 1960s and 1970s.
As I study for an MA in British First World War studies the chance exists not only to entrench my research into his journey through the Machine Gun Corps and the fledgling RAF but to consider the accuracy of any veterran’s account – as the years pass their stories can be coloured by what they read and hear so that they may say what people expect to hear.
The opportunity may also exist to do some original research, even to be in touch with the relatives of those featured in his story.
Is it possible, for example, to put names to the faces in a set of photographs of the RAF cadets who were barracked at the Queen’s Hotel, Hastings in May and June 1918?
And where he marked the spot where he buried his mates Dick Piper and Harry Gartenfeld is it feasible to look for them or leave a permanent stone?
Henry Gartendfeld & Dick Piper R.I.P OCT 1917
Fig.1. North of Poelcappelle approaching Houthulst Forest, 22nd October 1917.
(This action takes places around the pill boxes of Egypt House, a three compartment German concrete block house and Courage Post. It was becoming chilly – 13 C, and was overcast with a little rain).
When I arrived at the pill box (Courage Post) there were four of them.
‘Gartenfeld’s head was split right down the middle as if he’d been hit with an axe’.
They’d dragged him out round the side.
(Henry Godliph Gartenfeld died on Monday the 22nd October 1917)
Dick Piper was in the pill box.
‘Dick must have been standing with his head ducked down just outside the pill box’.
A piece of shrapnel had dented his helmet, scraped his face and gone into his guts.
Blair had dragged him into one corner of this pill box and put him on his trench coat. When I found him he had a sandbag tucked up under his legs so that his knees were up over his elbow.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked and took a look.
His guts were hanging out all over the place.
“How are things?” I asked Dick.
“Pull my legs up, Jack.” He said, “Pull my legs up.”
So I packed another sandbag under his legs to stop his guts falling out.
You had a bandage and a tube of iodine fixed into the tunic. Never much use.
He died some time in the afternoon.
I left him a bit ‘til he stiffened up; that’s what you did. They were easier to move like that. I got his pay book and credentials, dragged him out of the pill box and covered him up with some bits of rubble – whatever I could find. That’s all you could do. Imagine – having to bury your friends like that.
Dick Piper was 45 years old. He shouldn’t have been there.
He was from the Lancashire Fusiliers. Another one who died on the 22nd October 1917. His body was never found. I knew the spot though. It broke my heart to stand there 90 years on, dwelling on the lives they had missed, their families and how they had died like that all those years ago.
Such a waste.
Fig.2. August 1992. Mr John A Wilson MM ‘Jack’ – recalling events north of Ypres on the Passchendaele Salient. He marked the spot where Henry Gartenfeld and Dick Piper died. He was a corporal in charge of two guns, one in a pill box constructed against Egypt Farm, known as Egypt House, the second called ‘Courage Post’.
Further north there were the remnants of the Belgium army … there had been this attack to try and get this forest. It was doomed to failure from the start.