A guest blog from Joan Rees, on the subject of soldiers’ post-war silence.
My mother’s father was a coalminer in Wheatley Hill in County Durham. He volunteered as a soldier in WW1. He needn’t have gone and my grandmother never forgave him for going off and leaving her with four young children: my mother, the fifth, was born early in 1916.
I don’t know why he went or even where – with a name like Tom Smith and no date of birth, you’re hard to trace, though there was a Tom Smith in the South Yorkshire Regiment. My guess would be that he responded to propaganda and was perhaps curious to know what the world was like away from the coalfields, for the probability is that, at best, he’d never been further from the village than Durham City, within walking distance, on Miners Gala Day.
Grandpa fought on the Somme. Somewhere I have his Somme medal… But he was wounded and his left shoulder and arm never worked properly afterwards and probably were painful, though I never heard him complain. He had been a check weighman before the war and, as such, had a significant job in checking the coal in the trolleys that came up from the pit and the extent to which this was mixed with stones and useless rubbish on which depended the wages of the men working at the coal face. He wasn’t capable of this when he came back but, instead, was given (no doubt out of the kindness of heart of the manager) the job of ‘knocker- upperer’, the man who went round with a stick, banging on the windows of miners to get them up on time for their shifts underground.
He was, of course, retired by the time I knew him but living still in Wheatley Hill in a rented, terraced house rather than in 1Miners’ Villas where my mother grew up with the Working Men’s Club as his social life and rather heavy drinking of the local brew as his solace. He was a silent figure who hardly ever said a word and never joined in conversations. Sometimes there were family get-togethers when my mother and her three sisters gossiped and argued, while their men folk went into the rarely used front parlour and played solo. Grandpa just went on sitting quietly and unsmiling in his corner.
When WW2 had started and my father was in the RAF as an intelligence officer and all the other maternal uncles, apart from one in the police force (and some aunts), were fighting in various parts of the world. I was intermittently left to stay with my grandparents when my mother went off to meet my father and, convinced as I was that Hitler and the German army’s main target would be my father, I wanted to know what it was like fighting a war. To the great irritation of Granny, I pestered my grandfather with questions about ‘his war’.
Grandpa never responded. He refused to say a word and sat behind a newspaper in the corner of the kitchen/ living room drawing on his pipe. If he had been out to the Club and come home slightly the worse for wear, he would respond to my pestering by singing ‘mademioselle from Armentieres who’s never been kissed for forty years’ though he never got any further than that – and Granny was always telling the pair of us to ‘have hush and leave it.’
Almost certainly he spent the whole of his life after he came home suffering from what we would now call ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ and probably he had some sort of war disability pension, but almost certainly no other help.
It’s only now, many years later, after much reading and looking at photographs and the work of war artists, that I can recognise, albeit not really comprehend, what my grandfather must have seen and experienced to effectively have placed a barrier between him and the world around him for the rest of his ‘life’. And yet, as a miner, habituated to the dangers of working underground and the all too frequent injuries and deaths, he must have been more familiar than many of his fellow tommies, with risk and with mortality.
Grandpa was hardly a ‘war hero’. His name is obviously not inscribed on any of the memorials erected in towns and villages countrywide to the fallen nor are his ‘exploits’- what ‘exploits? – celebrated in any way but there must have been hundreds of men just like him whose lives were effectively destroyed by ‘the war to end all wars’ and who never came back to savour a ‘land fit for heroes to live in,’ and, as we prepare to celebrate the centenary of WW1, I think that he and his fellows should be remembered sympathetically.