This week marks 100 years since the end of the First World War, the two photos above are of my Grandfathers (Clarence Waterfield – right, and John William Parkinson – left) both fought throughout the First World War and both survived, I am forever blessed they did.
I am grateful they survived, without them I would not be here. I am even more grateful that I am the first generation in over 100 years that has not been called upon to fight in such a wide ranging conflict, nor have to face conscription, but as we approach the 100 years since the 1918 Armistice it’s worth further reflection about what we are being asked to remember and the lessons we still must learn.
Although I never knew either of my Grandfathers (Clarence dying in an accident just a few short years after the war, and John William just before I was born) I know from other family members that neither shared stories of the war they had fought in. Between them they had seen battle at the Somme, at Ypres and at Passchendaele and elsewhere. John William in particular had suffered from “Shell shock” (PTSD) after that first horrific day at the Somme where thousands died, including many of those he’d joined up with and trained with in the Leeds Pals.
Sadly, and just twenty one years later, my own Dad (Kenneth Waterfield) joined the Royal Artillery to fight in the Second World War 1939-1945, and once again thankfully he survived. Dad mostly served in India and Burma, again being involved in battles such as Meiktila and others. As with my grandfathers he spoke little about the war, but as he grew older (he died in 2015 aged 94) he shared the tiniest of glimpses about those years.
He told me about the morning he’d watched the sunrise over the Himalayas, and about the pet monkey who kept him company as he moved from camp to camp. He spoke of the twenty-first birthday cake sent via the Red Cross by his Mum at home all the way to Burma. He laughed (and cried) at the stupidity of the training on Salisbury Plain, with officers pointing pistols and shouting “bang” to signify that someone had been shot; stories of him being “busted” back to private (before being promoted to Bombadier again) when he answered another officers questions about the shells his artillery group had:
“How many shells have you got there Waterfield?”
“This many” answered my Dad pointing at the crates
“But you don’t know exactly how many you’ve got”
“No but I’ll know when we’ve run out!”
My Dads viewed arrogance as the utmost stupidity whether it was from individuals or from nations.
My Dad also told me (but far less)about some of the awful things he’d seen; like the “enemy” Japanese soldiers who had all been killed and / or killed themselves, rather than being captured by the British army – their bodies face down in muddy puddles as my Dad unit occupied the village they’d been defending. He told of how he’d been ordered to shoot down an American plane who had obviously been given the wrong co-ordinates and was bombing and strafing the British lines – no doubt what is now called “a friendly fire incident”. He spoke of how he always kept a bullet in reserve just in case he felt the need (like those Japanese soldiers) to take his own life rather than being captured. These are the stories he told. there were (he said) many, many more that would remain untold, too painful to awful to recall.
War, he always told me, was not something to glorify, it is the very worst of humanity, the sacrifices called upon to be mourned not celebrated.
We will remember them.