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This is a line my late grandfather used all his life. He had many sayings – all from the First World War. Another one was “your teeth are your pearls” and “you can shove it where the monkey puts its nuts.” He was active into his mid-90s, attending the 75th anniversary commemoration of Third Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele in July 1992; he was 96. He only stopped driving when he was told his poor eyesight had gone beyond correction age 93. And until late 1992 he walked a couple of miles back and forth to his daughter’s house to mow the lawn, clear the leaves from the drive and gutters … or change the oil in her car.
A passing curiosity about how they got the men fit during the First World War and blow me I find a book came out on it last year … and there’s even a museum all about it. The ‘Royal Army Physical Training Museum’ in Aldershot, England.
I suppose the next step would be to give some of the training ago in my local gym: boxercise might be the closest it gets. I can’t see there being bayonet training allowed. What did soldier’s say about training at the time? Some hated it? Some loved it? My grandfather likened his Sergeant Major to Oliver Hardy of ‘Laurel and Hardy’ – said he was a jovial character who used to bring some of his children down to the parade ground and the soldiers would give them rides on their shoulders! That’s not the image of physical training in the army you usually get on films about soldiering.
How an image of the where and how my grandfather fought during the First World War has changed over 45 years
Fig. 1. How the six-eight year old me thought a farmhouse in the Ypres Salient looked like during the First World War in October 1917
For 45 years I have dwelt on how the images in my head associated with stories my grandfather told me about the First World War changed from those of a six year old, to an eleven year old, through my thirties and forties … my childhood conception of the imagined world depended on the little I had personally seen and experienced. When my grandfather spoke of keeping his machine gun in a pillbox pointing at a farmhouse held by ‘Jerry’ For three days I at first pictured an intact farm building, the kind I often saw in a rolling and lush Northumbrian landscape, with the heavy stone walls and full deciduous trees I knew from being driven down bouncy country lanes north east of Alnwick heading for Chathill and our fisherman’s holiday cottage in Beadnell.
The pillbox in my imagination would have had to been like those left from the Second World War on the beach that my brother and I played in – and used as a urinal.
Fig.2. The reality of life on the Front Line
Age eleven a few ghastly black and white pictures from the First World War and the title sequence from the BBC Series ‘The Great War’ coloured my imagination: it added a soundtrack, skulls and broken trees, but not the scale, nor the mud, not the rain, the cold, thirst and hunger. Although he could mimmick every shell the sound effects my grandfather made could never get close to the terrifying sound os something large and dangerous approaching and then the almighty bang that followed.
In my twenties I got to the Ypres Salient in summer: it was dry, a new autoroute split and the noise of traffic created a barrier. Several TV efforts at recreating the war failed, not least as my thoughts expended to take in the thoughts of a what it meant to be a young man in those conditions, that you were in and out for a bout of two or three days. The rest of the time if not on fatigues or carrying parties you were looking for things to do.
Fig. 3. The reality. A ‘camouflaged’ pillbox, recently taken while a couple of hundred yards beyond that low, light grey strip is a similar pillbox still in enemy hands.
‘Not a worm could live.” My grandfather would say. He lived, as did the German who in error entered my grandfather’s pillbox and got clobbered for his trouble.
Only now, thoroughly immersed in hundreds of curated photographs and having looked on destroyed, wet massively scarred landscapes from open mining, having smelt rotting flesh – not human, but a dead sheep several days gone, am I starting to develop a true image. With teenage children of my own it is too easy to imagine the horror of sending them to war. Images of what happens to a body when hit by shrapnel or bullets, or blown apart by shells are readily available.
Fig 4. As it was. The dead behind a stone wall. The very same image my grandfather had while he sat it out in the remains of a recently captured ‘Jerry’ strongpoint.
There is little left for my imagination to do, other than to see another drama reconstruction and feel that nothing has done it better than ‘All Quiet on the Western Front.’ It looks dated, somehow caught in the early 1970s when it was finally made, but ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ leaves you with the desired sense of hopelessness, horror and despair that one ought to have.
Fig.5. Returning to ‘Courage Post’ to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. Corporal John Arthur Wilson MM recalls too friends who died at his side and that he buried in the rubble never to be found.
75 years after leaving that pillbox with two friends buried my 96 year old grandfather broke down: telling his stories as stories had been his escape from it, but back on the same soil, at the very spot with the light and low landscape just as it had been it once again had become horribly real. He withered away after that as if the reality of the war brought home to him made him whither from the inside out.
I know this part of the world well enough to walk it, step by step from the bivouacs outside Poperinghe, over the Yser Canal, through Langermarck and along the light rail track, then used to move men and matériel, now a cycle path. On towards Houthulst forest and the exact location of his machine gun company’s HQ at ‘Egypt House’ (a three roomed concrete strongpoint built into a farm building) and on another 300 yards to ‘Courage Post’ a pillbox on the edge of the road into the ‘forest’ – then ten thousand shards of broken tree trunks, now, buried in its midst, where they handled, until very recently, and destroyed old munitions from the extensive battlefield.
For all this ‘Jerry’ to me is still a black cartoon cat and the ‘Hun’ something barbaric from the fall of the Romans as a drawing in a Ladybird book. We are our own film directors when it comes to reading; an author is a catalyst to our thoughts that can conjure up anything – which, in part, is the fun of it. We inhabit a world of our own in the orchestra of our minds, the author the composer, as readers we conduct, as listeners or viewers the director injects a piece of their own mind.
Parts of ‘Lord of the Rings’ is more evocative of the conflict of two massive armies than much that I have seen or read – and I have seen and read most of it, including now one divisional history after another, and long out of print obscure autobiographies. It has created an image in my head. Of a screwball world where the daily job was to plan and execute slaughter against the enemy on a massive scale – slaughter than in those days treated men like so many bullets, shells or mules to expend, the only fear being whether or not they could be replaced.
World War 1: Aviation Comes of Age: University of Birmingham [Three Weeks]
Both more, and less than advertised. Far from sticking to the First World War the course flew away on a gust of enthusiasm in various directions that stretched beyond the Second World War … without really taking off.
|From Jack Wilson MM|
Fig.1 My late grandfather – the period I thought we’d cover was his experience of flight. 1911-1919
100% Coming out of the MA in British Military History with a Postgraduate Certificate and 60 credits after one year shows that I am still passionate about the subject of the First World War, but not how it is taught in a traditional ‘Saturday School’ format: I felt that I was back in the ‘C’ set of my lower-sixth History A’ level. The course tried hard to understand the affordances of learning online in a MOOC and will surely make many changes before it is presented again in the New Year. It rather failed to understand who its audience were: more niche, specialists and some extraordinarily well informed. The WW1 tag drifted rapidly into events between the wars, into WW2 and beyond with very little of the development of aviation offered or explored, except by us students, often in great depth. Its saving grace. It was too much an effort at shoehorning a lacklustre campus-based course of lectures, talks and books with long lists of qualifying but unreadable lists of references attached. The quizzes in particular were awful. Put in with no understand of their purpose or the considerable level expertise required to get these right.
|From First World War|
Fig.1 Motorbike Ambulance of the First World War
I came across something about the Ambulance Service using motorbikes during the First World War. I then saw a photograph of a motorbike with a sidecar with a set of platforms that would carry two stretchers. The arguments for the use of a motorcycle are made: lighter, quicker, tighter turning circle, use less fuel …
A article is cited. The British Medical Journal, January 1915. A few minutes later via the Open University Online Library I locate and download the article.
It is the speed at which quality research can be fulfilled that thrills me. This article is satisfying in its own right, but glancing at the dozen or more articles on medical practices and lessons from the Front Line are remarkable. We are constantly saved from the detail of that conflict, the stories and issues regurgitated and revisited as historians read what previous historians said without going back to the original source.
This is how a new generation can come up with a fresh perspective on the First World War – instead of a handful of specialist academics burrowing in the paper archives now thousands, even tens of thousands can drill right down to the most pertinent, untampered with content.
|From First World War|
Should I return, each time I’ll be happier to stand back and let others find their way. I will have read more, seen more, thought more and written more. If I can help nudge others towards finding their own ‘truth’ I will have done something useful.
Inevitably over the next five years many of us will become imbued with a unique sensibility on the subject. I think my perceptions shift on walks, or in the middle of the night.
TV is a mixed bag, and I’m reluctant to recommend much of it, however I am currently watching ad watching again the brilliantly smart, moving, visualised, engaging ‘War of Word’ Soldier Poets of the Somme which is far broader than the title may suggest – this goes well beyond the obvious to paint a vivid sense of how impressions of violent conflict alter and sicken.
Several of these poets are now forgotten, but celebrated here, as we come to understand how they transitioned from glorification and patriotism on joining up to the ghastly reality. War of Words: Soldier-Poets of the Somme must have been shown on BBC2 in the last week or so – available for a month I think. Very worth while. Expertly done. A variety of approaches. Never dull. Often surprising and some stunning sequences of animations to support readings of short extracts from the poems. And it even tells the story of British Military advances during the period running up to, through and after the Battle of the Somme.
Fig.1 At the war memorial to the Machine Gun Corps (MGC) on Hyde Park Corner, 1991. I’m with my late grandfather – dark suit and beige shoes, fourth in from the right. That’s me on the far left of the line in the glasses holding the standard. (Volunteered about five minutes previously) Marking the 75th Anniversary of the formation of the MGC in 1916.
I’ve just completed fascinating couple of weeks, often gruelling on The OU’s World War 1: Trauma and Memory on the FutureLearn MOOC platform.
My love for The OU is restored. Everyone should pick a course from FutureLearn to understand where learning is being taken. You cannot go wrong with an OU lead and designed one of these – some of the others are re-versioned books, leaflets, extra curricular workshops and lecture series, not embracing the affordances of the platform at all.
An eye opener for anyone studying learning – go over there anyone studying education.
At the end of each week, which officially run for the five working days of the week, we are invited to reflect on the lessons learnt. A very significant part of this are the ‘massive’ conversations that follow each ‘activity’.
A week of looking at and contemplating the dead from violent conflict I conclude that ‘war breeds hate; hate festers and breeds war.’ Unless the population is wiped out, or dived between the conquerors. Or unless the conquerors stay put – the Normans eventually subjugated England and Scotland and 1000 years on some of them still rule and own the land.
Responses to hatred are diametrically opposed: forgiveness and peace, blame and violent conflict. Has humankind moved on that far from the tribalism of one or two millennia ago? If young men, the typical combat soldier truly understood what could happen to them would they still go? It applies to every kind of risk, and testosterone fuelled it is more of a male thing? This willingness to take outrageous risks believing that it ‘won’t happen to them’. And of course, commemorating ‘our glorious dead’ and ‘returning heroes’ risks celebrating war rather than being a period of reflection and commemoration. A veteran of WW1 my grandfather never used the term ‘heroic’. Do young people joining up think that if nothing else, wounded, or dead in a coffin, they will at least come back ‘a hero’ – making it OK? And yet, however frightful, violent conflict remains a way that peoples, people, cultures attempt to resolve their differences.
It’ll continue until the world’s resources and ‘life chances’ – are fairly distributed. I feel the awakening of a burgeoning political sensibility that may wobble towards republicanism and socialism.