I benefited from the great democratisation of British society in the second half of the last century. I was able to go to university where previous generations of my family were denied such luxuries. I studied history and before concentrating on the History of Art after my first degree, I specialised in military history.
In their time, of course, my grandfathers fought in wars. My paternal grandfather fought in the Great War. An Oxfordshire farm boy, he joined the fledgling Tank Corps in 1916 and was trained as a gunner. He was in E battalion at the battle of Cambrai.
He was reluctant to talk about the war other to reflect on the unpleasantness of it all … the heat, noise and nausea of going into action in a tank (indeed the only ‘war story’ he ever repeated was how surprised he was when taking a latrine break in the wood that he bumped into someone he knew from the next village, back home … mundane memories, of course ) ..
He later told his nephew he was more than happy when, in early 1918, they were converted to machinegun detachments (as they felt machinegunners had much more chance of survival than tank crew …) … He did survive, of course (for which, as a descendant, I am grateful) ..
Perhaps as a response to his experiences on the Western Front, he flirted with druidism after the war (as in we have the certificate of admission to the order …) – again something he conveniently forgot. And, no fan of war, he never collected his medals. In fact, as we discovered, dealing with his estate, he did collect them and kept them in the strong box under his bed along with all his most treasured items.
My Mother’s dad was also too young to go in 1914, though doubtless he would have been keen to take on the Kaiser … He managed to sneak in before the end of the war but was rumbled as being underage for the front and was sent back to the depot where he was safely employed peeling potatoes. He served in the army of occupation in Weimar, so was one of the reservists called up in 1939 for the BEF and was evacuated from Dunkirk.
Neither man relished warfare nor spoke much of their experiences … Neither ever questioned the need for those wars, or the importance of winning them, and both remained moved by the memory of those who did not come home.
As we remember the mistakes and sacrifices of a century ago, it is important that we don’t confuse our emotional response to the losses with our rational understanding of what took the world to war, and a fair assessment of the men of all nations who fought it.