January 22, 2014
In My Grandfather’s World Of War
You can read a hundred books and see a thousand pictures, but nothing can take you deep into the horror of war unless you were there. I have been lucky. My father’s generation, like his own father’s before him, was caught up in war on a global scale, but I have only witnessed war through the eyes of others in distant places. Yet one hundred years ago this year, my maternal grandfather went to battle in what was known for a long time as “The Great War.” I have often tried to imagine what it was like for this man I grew to love to step into the maelstrom, but this always seemed impossible. Last year, however, I visited the area around Ypres in Belgium known as Flanders Field where the first terrible battles took place. I crossed the roads, fields and bridges where he would have marched to war, still in his teens, his life filled with uncertainty, and came a little closer to that impossible dream of understanding what he went through. It was a journey into my family’s past and an unforgettably moving experience. Even if you have no personal connection to the First World War a trip to this region is something no visitor to Europe should miss.
It was “the War to end all Wars.” It was a war that saw death and destruction on a scale that had previously been unimaginable. One can talk about the numbers that died or were wounded but as Stalin is often quoted as saying, “One death is a tragedy but a million deaths are a statistic.” Although not a man to be trusted as a judge of the human condition, Stalin’s words seem to sum up how I felt during my time on the battlefields of Northern Europe. I wanted to see if I could somehow connect with how just one man might have felt for, though an army may be a million strong, each soldier sees the war only through his own eyes.
The first stop was at Tyne Cot Cemetery. My guide for the day was a dapper old Belgian gent with a neat brimmed hat and gentle expression. He asked those of us in the group if anyone had a relative that might be buried at Tyne Cot. One Australian couple said they did have a distant relation who died in the war, but they were not sure where he was laid to rest. I told the guide about my grandfather, how he had gone to Belgium in 1914 with the first British troops, and how he had been badly wounded in the first great battle at Mons a few miles from where we stood. Eventually, after treatment back home, he recovered and went back to join his comrades, but was shot again at Gallipoli towards the end of the war and spent the rest of the war back in England. The old chap listened intently then asked “Did you know that your grandfather would have been a very special soldier?” before explaining that he would have been part of the British Expeditionary Force, a regiment of highly trained marksmen. The BEF were all volunteers as this was before the mass conscription that was needed to replace the thousands dying in the trenches. Each man was so adept with his Lee Enfield rifle that he could put 15 rounds a minute into a 4 foot target at 300 yards – a far higher level of marksmanship than any of the enemy they faced. I had indeed learned something about my grandfather that I had never known.
I will describe what I saw at Tyne Cot and later at Ypres itself in a future article.
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