100 years ago today an assassination occurred on the streets of Sarajevo that would lead 37 days later to the outbreak of the ‘Great War’ (later renamed ‘World War One’ after the world was embroiled in another, even deadlier one, a quarter of a century later).
The ‘war to end all wars’ became quagmired in a muddy trench war stalemate for bloody year after bloody year, with the ritual slaughter of millions (37 million being the accepted estimate). Often tens of thousands would be mown down in just an afternoon. To visit the mass graves around Ypres and the Sommes is still a shuddering experience all these years on. My parents took me there when I was an impressionable teenager in the 1970s. We found the small gully where my Mum’s father, Charles (who I am named after) charged down through a field of cabbages on horseback towards the German gatling guns. At the time, he noticed a few cavalrymen falling off their horses and thought ‘Why is that happening?’. In the heat of the moment, he hadn’t realised they were being shot. He was 21. They reached the German lines to find the trenches deserted. With no other way to have word from their commanders, someone had to ride back through the lines to find out what they had to do next. One person had 3 horses shot from under him and was later awarded a VC. When the order finally came back it read: “retreat to your earlier position.” Just one typical story of the futility of the war, and the leaderless management thereof. This was part of the Battle of Cambrai (1917), the first battle to use tanks, and one the last to use cavalry.
A few miles away, and a couple of years earlier in 1915, my dad’s father Howard was engaged in an ‘over the top’ charge with his brother Bertie, both of the Essex Yeomanry. In the confusion of battle, both were separated and injured that day, Howard crawling through the mud having taken shrapnel to his leg (a mangled 1909 minted coin, which is in my possession, saved his leg and probably his life). After many hours and in great pain, he finally reached a mobile hospital, only to be told his was the wrong regiment and had to be treated elsewhere. Recounting the story to me (aged 9) some 60 years later, he had tears streaming down this face. After several operations and a painful rehabilitation he found himself invalided out of the army back in his Post office day job in London. One evening, commuting through Paddington Station a lady came up to him and gave him a yellow rose (‘awarded’ to those who had not signed up, as a mark of cowardice). Rather than argue his case, explaining that he had in fact signed up and seen action, my grandfather stiffened and merely said, ‘Thank you madam’. Heartbreaking. In the 1970s we went to find the battle fields around Ypres where Granddad Howard had fought, found an inscription on the Menin Gate to a Sergeant Draper, of the same regiment, who died that day in 1917.
Howard lived to 87 and I was 10 before he passed away. I remember his stories and jokes. He always had an apple for me when he appeared at our house, tucked inside his large trench coat. Older brother Bertie would live to 100, and I remember visiting him too around that time, as well as his sister Maggie, who lived to the grand old age of 106. Meanwhile my maternal grandfather, Charles, who we all called ‘Pop’, lived to 6 days before his 100th birthday in 1996. His funeral was on what would have been his 100th. He had plans to ride a horse on his birthday. Instead, a bugler from his old regiment played at the church. A few years earlier, as Brigadier the Rev. Harris, he had read the Ode of Remembrance (‘at the going down of the sun, we will remember them’) at Westminster Cathedral on Remembrance Sunday, in front of the Queen Mother.
I tell my own children about their great grand parents and what they did. My son took the mangled coin into his Primary School a few Anzac Days ago to tell the Howard’s story . I’ll never forget my grand dads. The war to end all wars did not end all wars, but it brought millions of stories, and in our household we will be sure to continue the memory of what they did all those years ago.