21 February, 2011

Touching the Past

Throughout my life I have been a 'list person' – writing lists of jobs to do and then ticking them off as I completed them -  and then writing another list! This policy enabled me to keep on top of my job in a busy  classroom surrounded by 30 or so children all making their demands on me and my time but still today when I am well into my retirement I still find that list making rules my days! My son thinks I’m very sad and he’s probably right! One of the jobs on my list had been there for months or even years and I’ve kept putting it off but in these dark February days it seemed an admirable time to remove it from the list by addressing the task once and for all. 
The first page of grandfather's letter
- double click on picture to increase size!

 Some years ago my parents died and after my father’s death I cleared his house, put it up for sale and gathered together box after box of family photographs, old newspaper cuttings, letters and the like. For the past 5 or 6 years they have lain jumbled up in a wardrobe in our spare room and my task for the next few months is to sort them out. I’ve looked at them many times and marvelled at the family and  social history there is – many of the photographs and objects dating back a century. There are also faded photographs of days out I can remember as a child or people who I do not know, sitting on beaches or gazing into the camera.

Of all the items, however, there are a number relating to my grandfather which I find interesting, poignant emotional and exciting. He died in 1953 when I was eight and I only have vague memories of him. I didn’t have any great feelings about the items but I must admit that as I have become more familiar with them my passing interest in these things from a past age has become something more.  Now, I'm not only moved by the social and family history they tell of but have increasingly felt an urge to find out more and now, somehow it seems to me, I have almost "touched the past" as I have held them in my fingers and looked in detail at their contents.

I grew up in Preston in Lancashire and lived, until I came to Nottingham (to teacher training colleg e) aged about twenty, in a two up two down terraced house. It was a very humble background. My grandfather, Joseph Derbyshire, lived in  a similar house in the next street. He had lived there all his life from when he married in the early years of the century. He spent most of his working life as journeyman property repairer  and builder – never owning his own business and always, I think being strapped for cash. Like many others of his generation he was, of course, a victim of the great depression of the 30s and lived through two wars. Additionally, his wife, my grandmother,  died in childbirth in the early 30s and he struggled to bring up 5 small children – one of them my mother. All this I knew. But when I began rummaging through the boxes I found one or two items that immediately brought me a link with him.

Firstly, I should explain that the older I get the more critical I become of war and all things military.  As the years have passed I have increasingly become irate and now angry by our society’s obsession with battles, killing the enemy, glorifying war through medals and  gold braid, men in silly  uniforms, war films and the like. Increasingly I will have no truck with it. An elderly friend of mine said to me some months ago, as various WW2 anniversary celebrations were making the TV news, 'Why are we still fighting this war 70 years after it ended?' She was exactly right – although I know many might disagree with her. Certainly, in any future conflict I would be a conscientious objector and pacifist. All of this might the basis of a future blog but sufficient to say my beliefs have coloured my views of the little treasure trove I found in the boxes! For that I apologise.

So, what did I find. Well, there were numerous postcards each with a little popular verse  - I’ve seen their like before on the 'Antiques Roadshow' - but these were personal they were from my grandfather to my grandmother and vice versa. They were written during the Great War when  he was in France 'doing his bit.' They are brief but poignant. They mention 'little Albert' – the oldest of his children – just starting to walk, they tell of Janey thinking of her husband every night and praying for his safety and wondering if he has a bed to sleep on. They tell of him 'coming home soon on leave'. Many of his have no message apart from 'To my dear Janey'  - I understand that serving soldiers were often not allowed to write messages in case it gave anything away to the enemy so Janey had to simply look at the picture and at least know that he was still alive.
One of the cards Jane sent to Joe when he was in France
As I looked at them I reflected upon how different things are today – e-mail, mobile phones and the like – and indeed society’s expectations would not tolerate such a position. But in those days families just accepted this and kept a stiff upper lip. I thought, too, about what it must have meant to Joe and Janey (and millions like them) when he went off to France – a place which to them must have seemed as far away as the moon is to us. A completely unknown world for ordinary people who rarely travelled from their home town.

Also in the box were many faded sepia photographs of Joe with Janey and his brother and sister  - all standing proudly posing in their uniforms – ready to march off to war or return to the battle field after leave. There were other photographs too – showing Joe standing with his comrades – all to attention in their camp  at the front. And with these were pictures of him sitting with nurses and other wounded soldiers. And finally a lovely sketch of a rather grand building and scribbled on the back 'the hospital where I was treated for my wounds'. My grandfather was always a quite a good drawer - I can remember as small  boy sitting drawing with him.
At the front. Grandfather stands on the back row extreme left
But the things that pulled all these together and have given me much food for thought were two handwritten letters. One is a page obviously torn from an exercise book and written in green ink – in a beautiful copperplate hand. The other is an exact copy – dated the day afterwards (March 26th 1919). The first letter is a draft and has some  blanks where he has left  spaces  to put in bits of factual information – his army number, a date etc. The second is a final copy which  he obviously copied out the day afterwards. Presumably, there must have been a third copy which he sent. The letter is a begging letter – a plea from a desperate man to the War Commissioners in Chelsea for an increase in his war pension so that he can support his family. His pension had been granted at the beginning of March and he was writing at the end of March so he was obviously anxious to improve his award - perhaps they were desperate for food, perhaps the workhouse beckoned.

I say that it is an exact copy of the first. This is not strictly true. The first draft says that his wife - Janey - is suffering from a 'nervous breakdown' but by the time that he does the copy on the following day he has changed this to a 'serious illness' and he says 'she is not strong'. For whatever reason he felt that it was not appropriate to use the term 'nervous breakdown' - I wonder why? Stigma? 'Serious illness' sounds more dramatic? Perhaps Janey didn't want to admit her condition. In the end it doesn't really matter but I can understand his anxiety. 

Recovering from his wounds. he sits on the front row
second from the right
I have to confess, that although I have no great emotional bond with my grandfather or indeed my family as a whole, whenever I read the letter I get a lump in my throat. He was a very ordinary man of little schooling. By trade a journeyman whitesmith (a worker in tin and pewter). He lived in a tiny house with no hot water or bathroom. He had a beautiful handwriting style and his use of English was impeccable. He was sent off to a far off country to fight in a war that was not of his making, was wounded on two occasions and returned to his country not as a hero (except perhaps to his wife and his neighbours) but had to beg for more money from the government because the injuries he had sustained meant, as he says, that 'I shall be handicapped while ever I live.'

So, what did the letter say? (I copy exactly as he wrote):

I  Joseph Derbyshire of 5 Rigby Street, Preston, Lancashire most humbly petition you to review my pension of eight shillings and threepence (8/3)per week granted to me on the 7/3/19 for twelve months, for the wounds which I received in action during the war.

I don't think this amount satisfactory and I think that you will agree with me when I tell you that I have a Wife (who is suffering from a serious illness and she is not strong) and a Child who is three years old depending on me and I cannot yet follow any employment and particularly my own trade that of a journeyman Black and White smith nor do I think I shall ever be able to do the same at my work as I did before the war.

My Regimental address was 23807 Pte. Joseph Derbyshire, 9th Batt. Loyal North Lancs Regt. and I was wounded through the chest and lungs on the 21st Oct.  1916 and I was in Hospital six months  before I recovered. Shortly after this I was suffering from dysentery and had to be sent home on the 12th Sept. 1917 to recuperate. I was again wounded on the 27th May 1918 and taken prisoner with a broken leg. Through some cause or other this leg is now shorter that the other and as my work demands me to be on my feet most of the time I shall be handicapped while ever I live.

Hoping this will receive your best attention .
I remain,
Yours humbly
Joseph Derbyshire

As I read the letter I pictured him in my mind’s eye sitting, all those years ago, carefully scribing his letter. I remembered that he died at 61 – a remarkably young age and I always remember him looking an old man. Indeed I have a photo of him sitting on his back door step with me – it must have been shortly before he died. He looked far older than his 60 years. He had had a very hard life. And I wonder what it must have 'cost' him – to write a begging letter. Today we would not tolerate a pension for war wounds that was only for 12 months. Today our expectations would quite rightly be so different. Would I have written such a humble, polite letter - I think not! (although I sense in it a bit of  'steel' when he uses phrases like 'I think that you will agree with me'). I also remember that he always walked with a pronounced limp and wore a built up boot to compensate for his shortened leg - his war wound staying with him for the rest of his life.

Joe and Janey just before war broke out
I thought too of my increasing anger at all things military. That ordinary people should be plucked from their everyday life to 'serve King and country'. I thought  of Wilfred Owen’s bitingly critical war poem 'Dulce et Decorum Est' and I thought greatly of Siegfried Sassoon’s  ironic 'Base Details':

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the base
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel.
Reading the Roll of Honour. 'Poor young chap,'
I’d say – 'I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in the last scrap.'
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home to die – in bed.

My grandfather did die in bed – but the Great War lived with him all his life. While the officer class, the  wealthy, the politicians and the monarchy came back to England  paraded their medals and glorified the valiant youth who had been sent to their death – and then toddled safely off to bed whilst  the reality was a life time of pain or poverty  for ordinary men. While the rich  lived the life of the glitzy society  of the roaring 20s my grandfather and millions like him were trying to make ends meet on a meagre pension, being the 'humble servants' of the 'War Commissioners in Chelsea.' It was a page straight out of Orwell’s 'Road to Wigan Pier.'

And finally, as I read the pages and looked at the creased  sepia photographs, I thought, too, how my grandfather could never in his wildest dreams have imagined that night in March 1919 when he sat down to write his letter that almost a hundred years later his grandson would take his beautiful scribblings which have somehow survived the years and the photos of him standing proudly in his uniform and scan them into a computer (what would he have made of that!). And then 'publish' his words on something called the internet so that they could be instantly read by everyone on the planet – should they choose to look.

How clever we are today! What a very long way we have come with our technology!  But, sadly, we still glorify war, our Royal family still dress up in military costumes wearing medals that they have not won, our Prime Ministers still send young men off to war and then wring their hands when a young soldier is killed. Our morals and ethics lag far behind our technology.

I only have small memories of my grandfather but from what I know of him he was very quietly spoken and gentle and in that respect I often think of John F Kennedy’s comment  'War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.' I don’t think my grandfather ever became a conscientious objector but I know that he deeply regretted what the war had done to him and his family. For me, I have no hesitation in going along with Einstein who famously said 'He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file and sends others to kill has already earned my contempt and sorrow. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice.' 
One of the drafts of the letter.

I cannot imagine how this young, gentle whitesmith went off with thousands of his friends to a far off place to fight a war for King and country and should go through what he did both in the war and after it. Even today with the marvels of technology and our great awareness of the rest of the planet it would be daunting but to people of his generation, for whom France was an unknown world, so far removed and cut off from their loved ones it must have felt terribly lonely and frightening in the horrors of the battlefield. But then, to add insult to injury and to return home to poverty his only "reward" a minimal "pension" and two cheap tin medals (which I have)  for his sacrifice is to me incomprehensible and grossly immoral. As I rummaged through the box of old photographs and the rest I came to the conclusion that that as a society we should be utterly ashamed and those responsible for war and conflict - politicians, Kings and  military "brass" should be made to pay for their actions.    

But, personal prejudices aside, in sorting out my box I knew that I had somehow fleetingly touched the past.