Remembrance Day. The words themselves made me ponder. Remembering. Memories.
I would like to share with you my memories of the First World War.
You may wonder how I could possibly remember the First World War. I was not alive at the time, in fact, I was not alive in the Second World War either, but just because the Great War ended in 1918, does not mean the effects of the war ended in 1918.
The Great War began as most wars begin—with human greed, politics, power plays and a few power hungry people unable to live in harmony. The worst in human nature coming to the fore, being fuelled by a few despotic individuals.
The Great War continued as most wars do, with lives interrupted, carnage, destruction, desperation, men and women lost and killed, and families shattered. This war may have helped to forge an Australian identity, but it did so at a great cost.
The Great War ended with a piece of paper declaring peace, and only the lucky men and women returning home. Many were broken physically, more were broken mentally and most bore scars you could not see. There are estimates of 16 million deaths, both military and civilian, and equal numbers of wounded.
But I digress. Let me tell you of my memories. My great uncle, Alfred, was one of those wounded men. He returned from the front physically injured. He was a victim of mustard gassing and had sustained shrapnel wounds. I did not know Alfie as a young man. How he coped as he settled back into civilian life, I do not know. What I do remember was how he managed as an older man, in his 70s, full of wit and humour, and patience.
My most vivid childhood memories of him were at the Sunday meals we occasionally shared. We would all dish up our plates of food, revelling in the abundance of the Sunday table. He would take a few peas, a quarter potato and a spoonful of meat. This is the aftermath of war—a gaunt man, a broken body and a stomach eaten away by crude surgery, unable to take in more than a few mouthfuls at a time. Almost forced starvation.
He was one of the lucky ones. His injuries were invisible. He had no disfigurement, limp or missing limbs. With the love of his family he managed to rehabilitate, to lead a productive and long life. We should not forget the effects of war. He could not forget.
My second experience of the war came more recently—just last year in fact. It is not truly a memory of my own, but has now become precious to me. I was visiting my mother who is in her 80s and together we were going through my grandparent’s trunk—Tommy and Jean’s trunk. It is a small, black metal trunk, with a rusty catch. Not a true treasure chest, but to me, an absolute treasure trove. Inside were many of my grandfather’s war memorabilia.
In this box were his army papers, dated early 1916, letting him know where he was being assigned for the war, what his regiment was to be and when he would leave—just a few lines, a collection of facts. This was how his war started. There were also his discharge papers, dated three years later— 1918. The war was over; he was on his way home to his parents and siblings, and to my grandmother, back to civilian life and to building a family of his own. All he had to show for the three years were a few medals, a few scars, and I am sure, many memories of his own.
Under these cold hard facts lay what I now treasure most. A tiny leather bound book, also dated 1916, belonging to my grandmother, Jean. It was a custom of that age for young girls to own an autograph book. This small book, no larger than your palm, was where friends and family wrote small notes and poems to be remembered by. Many of her friends wrote little notes. Some drew the most detailed ink drawings, painted miniature watercolours, wonderful depictions of landscapes and flowers. They all seemed to be quite accomplished. One entry stood out among all the others. A poem, penned in 1916 by the love of her life, her soon to be husband, my grandfather, Tommy. Not having words of his own, he copied a poem written by Richard Lovelace.
Tell me not, sweet, I am unkind,
To war and arms I fly.
True, a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace,
A sword, a horse, a shield.
I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Loved I not honour more.
He signed it ‘Your love, Tommy’.
Here was a man, on the brink of marrying, sent to war—to do the honourable thing for his country—for three long years, fighting for freedom for others, all the time longing to be home with his girl.
Here too was a girl, just 19 years of age, waiting for her love to return while living at home with her parents, not knowing the fate of her love, but hoping and praying for his return. Her life was on hold.
To me, these three people put a human face to war.
Alfie, with his struggling body.
Tommy, who gave up his love to fight in a war, not knowing if he would return, but knowing that he had to do his duty.
Jean, who waited patiently for her love to return, who loved him and never gave up hope.
I have not mentioned the horror of war, the futility of war, the senseless loss of life and the devastating effects on the world, but I hope that by introducing you to three very ordinary people, three very lucky people, I can help to put a human face to war.
What I cannot do is put a face to those who lost their lives in that Great War, the so called ‘war to end all wars’, but this is what we are called to do today. To remember the people, their sacrifice and to strive to ensure that their sacrifice was not in vain.
Lest we forget.