I am a child of the sixties, reared on an incongruous mix of hippy ideals and World War II action movies. It was a period submerged in technicolour and viewed in Panavision. A childhood filled with the glory of war, a celebration of the the courageous, of rugged handsome men, calm under pressure, hoodwinking the enemy, who tended to be blonde haired blue-eyed Nazi’s sporting scars across one cheekbone and wearing sinister leather trench-coats. The heroes, invariably American, overcame vast odds with steely eyed determination, a smart line in cool humour and a sub machine gun.
It was a childhood spent ‘playing soldiers’ with tribes of pre-pubescent boys on the whin and gorse covered hillside behind my council estate. Small platoons of tiny Kirk Douglases, Rock Hudson’s, John Wayne’s and Clint Eastwood’s roamed the undergrowth of a quiet seaside town armed to the teeth with home made Schmeissers and Bren Guns fashioned from scrap wood and six inch nails. The air echoed with earnest attempts to replicate the sound of 1940’s military weaponry that, given our voices hadn’t yet taken on the timbre of adulthood, sounded to the non combatant observer like the mating calls of dolphins. Sporadic battles were fought with evolving rules of engagement and ended with squabbles of who had been shot and when. If the bullets aren’t real, there are plenty of opportunities to dispute whether you’d been hit, killed, or sustained a Hollywood flesh wound. With the latter invoked more often than not, such military engagements were apt to last until nightfall, or until the barked command of a harassed mother called the key protagonists in for tea. If only such scenarios had stayed the hands of Wilhelm II, or Hitler.
This glamourised and sanitised perception of war must have seemed so anachronistic to those within my large extended family, for there were many among the uncles and grandparents who had endured first hand the realities of warfare. My parents had been children during the Second World War and had experienced personal privations and the terrors of a letter from the Ministry of War. I recall only fleeting admonishments, gently handed down with smiling faces, that the real thing was nothing like the movies. I remember an Uncle, who I only later learned had fought in the Malaysian Insurgency, look upon me with grave countenance and, with quiet urgency, advise me never to join the army.
Perhaps it was this backdrop that created in me a swelling desire to ask someone first hand what it had been like to fight in the war. With my uncle, cadaverous and sensible, clearly an unlikely candidate to meet my expectations of heroic exploits and derring do, my thoughts turned to my grandfather, a tiny man with a hang-dog expression and watery brown eyes. I checked with my father whether my grandfather had ‘fought in the war’. Indeed he had, came the reply, the First World War, as a private in the Highland Light Infantry. Armed with this I waited for an opportunity to question him, certain that he would be delighted to tell his grandson all about his adventures, of how he had fought and won, of what it was like to be in battle.
How I found myself spending an afternoon with my grandparents in their tiny house, I can’t recall, but I can remember the gloomy interior of the sitting room, the dark wood furniture, the worn out armchair in which my grandfather habitually sat, the hiss and crack of the damp coals in the fireplace. I remember his sagging figure and the silver case from which he procured the component parts of his roll-up cigarettes, forever at the browned tips of his fingers. He was a man of few words and sad smiles. A life spent at sea had ingrained in him a locked-in self sufficiency, which could make him daunting prospect to engage with, but in the chutzpah of childhood, taciturnity is an ephemeral hurdle and I sidled up to him with few reservations.
The question was disarmingly simple in retrospect. ‘What did you do in the war?’, had become a national cliché, but unaware of such things, I asked it anyway. The response was…unexpected.
I remember the small, but quick, turn of his head and the sudden alertness. The deep sorrow in his dark eyes and the silvered sparkle within, as if a phosphorous flare from a night a long time ago had been imprisoned there, forever to be replayed, forever arcing across his vision. He looked haunted, and in searching for a response that would not terrify a young boy, stammered and stumbled towards a platitude that was mercifully cut off by my advancing grandmother, a huge bosomed woman in a floral pinny who spent her days searching for my grandfathers hidden bottles of whisky.
Like a stately ship, she hoved into view, her figure blocking what little light came in through the thick net curtains. She was not an unkind woman. My grandmother had a dry sense of humour and a twinkle in her eye, but she put a stop to my interrogation with the kind of decisiveness that would have been prized on the battlefield. My grandfather simply looked relieved and turned to stare into the flames of a fire now well ablaze.
I never asked again. Perhaps because, even an eight year old can tell when a subject is off limits, or perhaps my father had a word in my ear and from that I had my first ever insight into the world that lay beyond the superficial and mundane. Whatever the reason, it left an indelible impression. From that simple moment, from his simple facial expression, I realised that there was a hidden burden carried by those who’d taken part in such events. That rather than write memoirs and diaries, most carried the horror to their graves. A lifetime of depression and of lives never quite fulfilled.
The years spun on. The river of life carried us onwards and he died in his mid seventies a long time ago. I never did find out where he had served exactly, other than it was in France and that he’d survived the conflict from 1914 through to 1918, a phenomenal achievement that I have concluded was partly down to his diminutive stature. A hard target to hit, especially deep within a trench. But he took his secrets with him and when my grandmother died some time after, what memories there had been of that time went with her too.
For some reason my childhood curiosity must have left a trace. After my grandmothers passing, I was given my grandfathers medal. It is one of hundreds of thousands given to the survivors of that conflict. I have it to this day. It depicts the bust of George V on one side, and of a horse borne warrior trampling a shield bearing the double headed eagle on the other. His reward for surviving the mayhem and senseless bloodshed.
Robert Cook, Private 4364, Highland Light Infantry, 1914-1918.