Today, on the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1, I’m thinking about my grandfather, Harry Robert Spencer. He was (like many others) too young to join up and lied about his age to do so anyway. I can’t begin to guess what that was like and what went through his mind, only that he told the story with pride. Foolish pride perhaps.
So, away he went and fought, part of the “poor, bloody infantry”, rising through the ranks to Major at some point and being decorated several times. Badly wounded at the Somme, he was on the point of having his leg amputated in a field hospital, when more casualties suddenly came in and by the time they had been dealt with the surgeons decided that my grandfather’s leg probably didn’t need to go.
That was one of only two stories he told of that war. I won’t tell you the other one. It’s too awful.
There’s something we forget about this war, amongst the shocking stories of very young men dying in grotesque conditions, and that is that, since 888,246 British soldiers died (around 10-12%, depending on which figures you take), nearly 90% survived. Those young men came back, with or without wounds, with their youth destroyed. Many of them were broken or brutalised, the wounds invisible.
Some of those who were broken, if temporarily, with so-called “shell shock”, ended up in the Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, now part of Napier University. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were two of them.
And as for those who were brutalised, the television series, Peaky Blinders, made a big impression on me. Set in 1919 and onwards, it portrays young men harshened and damaged by the horrors they faced in the trenches and tunnels, then returning to Birmingham and their terrifying gang, the Peaky Blinders, in a story reflecting the politics, emotions and social changes of the time and heralding the “troubles” of Northern Ireland.
My grandfather was neither broken nor brutalised. He was the gentlest man. He died thirty-four years ago, living with us for the last seven years of his life. When we were younger, he always let me and my sisters win at card games, taught us rude songs, watched old Westerns with us, always slipped us all his “brown money” because he claimed not to like it and would sing invented opera songs where the entire lyrics consisted of “I want a beer”. I gave him a minor role in my first novel, Mondays are Red, though he died before I even knew I wanted to be a novelist. “Grandpa is kind and twinkling, bad in the best sense. A wicked way with words and quite likely to slip money into my hand for the smallest reason. He smells of sweet tobacco and jazz.”
I haven’t forgotten him and today I remember him particularly.
Have you seen this astonishing and inspirational art installation of 888,246 poppies at the Tower of London? I’ve registered for a chance to buy one of them.