It is generally accepted that former combatants are unwilling to talk about their war-time experiences.
My maternal grandfather, known as Grandad
Grandad was extremely reticent about his time in the First World War trenches. I don’t know what moved him to share some memories with me, two years before his death. Perhaps he was irritated by my anti-war unpatriotic views and my generally shaggy appearance. Or perhaps he felt that with my naïve passion for history I needed educating. Anyway, out of the blue he opened up.
“Of course I had to fight. You had to fight for King and Country. I didn’t know anything else much. Some Arch Duke shot in the Balkans. But King and Country was good enough for me.”
After basic training, he found himself in the trenches. In spite of the mud, the order was still to keep every piece of equipment polished. This included the helmet. It was only after countless Tommies were shot by German snipers that the order went out for helmets to be caked with mud.
Grandad was promoted to Corporal and was sent one night into No-mans-land with two privates to superintend the digging of a new forward trench. The flares went up; random sniper fire broke out. The two privates dug for their lives and as soon as possible, Grandad took shelter with them in the deepening trench.
An officer appeared above them (life expectancy of an officer was three days). “Corporal Jones! What are you doing down there?” “Taking cover, sir!” “Get up here at once! You’re in charge!” Miraculously Grandad survived having to stand in the brightly lit open ground until his detail safely completed the task.
Before going over the top in the battle of the Somme, Grandad was issued with a measure of rum served in a can. Then somewhere in No-mans-land a shell exploded and filled his body with shrapnel.
He lay between unconsciousness and death out in the open. It was lucky for him that the Generals on both sides cared about the health of their surviving soldiers. It was vital that they died from bullets, gas or shrapnel rather than dysentery. So after sharp conflict had taken its usual toll, a short truce was declared so carts could be sent out to collect the dead bodies, before flies spread disease. As the red cross guys threw Grandad’s body into the cart, they noticed it twitching.
Close to death, Grandad was temporarily patched up and then shipped back to a London hospital. After some considerable time he was discharged from hospital, wearing a suit that Grandma had brought in. He got on a bus to take him home. There he noticed two young women who stared at him and then fell into earnest conversation. A decision was reached and one of them, crossed the bus, reached into her handbag and presented Grandad with a white feather.
What I can’t get over is the thought that alongside makeup and purse, every red-blooded English girl had to have a collection of white feathers in her handbag, ready to present to total strangers not in uniform. I expect they read the Daily Mail.
He was not considered to be sufficiently fit to return to the front but was sent instead to Ireland, which was on the brink of civil war. He told me that walking the streets of Ireland was more terrifying than being in the trenches. It was there also that he was demoted. He was escorting a prisoner – I think they were at a railway station. The prisoner wanted to go to the toilet and of course Grandad was too much of a gentleman to stand over him while he relieved himself. There was a back window to the toilet which provided even greater relief to the agile prisoner. The escape was seen to be Grandad’s fault and so he was relieved of one of his stripes.
Shortly after the 9th of September, after the Russian crossed the Danube and triggered a “spontaneous Communist revolution,” Ivan Volkanov, my father-in-law, found himself as an officer in the new Peoples Republican Army, pushing up alongside the Red Army though Yugoslavia. His battalion was following the earlier thrust against the German occupying forces.
There had been a battle up ahead in which some lads from his village had reportedly died, so the following night, Ivan saddled up his horse to see if he could get more news. . He rode up along a railway track which led to the forward positions and the battlefield. Eventually he saw in the distance a flickering light and drawing closer, he made out some figures sitting huddled about a brazier on a platform in small village station. They were Bulgarian. He asked about the lads from his village. They shrugged and pointed up the line.
Ivan rode another mile down the track and reached the battlefield in the cold dawn. Bodies lay on both sides of the dividing track. On one side were Russian and Bulgarian boys; on the other lay Germans. What he saw needs no comment from me.
“I looked to my left. The Bulgarian and Russian boys were filthy, they were lousy, they were ragged. I looked to my right. The German boys were clean shaven, their uniforms were spotless, their boots were polished. But they were all dead – all dead!”