Monday, July 7, 2014

A Cold Beer in Passchendaele

World War 1 erupted 100 years ago.

About 50 years ago, I decided WW1 was a travesty. I remember my father's sadness and my mother's rage when I announced my (paternal) grandfather died at Passchendaele for nothing.

Teenagers are not known for tact, and I am not proud of that outburst.

Man of the House

September 1917, when he was four years old, my dad was told he was now the man of the house.

My father. His father, a carpenter, made the wheelbarrow.
His father's body was never identified, holding out the futile hope he might still be alive.

My grandmother had to wait almost 3 years to receive the letter (displayed at the top of this post) officially recognizing her husband as dead.

A Working Class Man

My grandfather, David Wilson, lived in West Kilbride, Ayrshire, Scotland. This was a place with a rigid class structure; you either knew your place, or you left.

David was a carpenter. I have notebooks he used when learning his trade: they include hand-drawn architectural diagrams, specifications, algebra, and records of his various work assignments.

The notebooks also contain transcribed, sentimental poetry.

I believe David loved my grandmother, and my father dearly.

A Class War

WW1 started as a war among the ruling classes of Europe.

In many ways the working classes of Germany and Britain had more in common with each other than their rulers.

My grandfather died for a country where only 60% of adult men had the right to vote, and all women were disenfranchised. Leadership in the military was based on social class, not purely on competence.

August 2011

With these thoughts in mind, I got off the city bus in Zonnebeke, Belgium. I hiked across the battlefields to Tyne Cot Memorial, near where my grandfather fell in the Battle of Passchendaele in September 2017.

Tyne Cot is the largest war cemetery in the British Commonwealth. I found my grandfather's name on the memorial wall, then started to walk towards the rows of grave markers.

Knowing many of The Fallen were unidentified, I was surprised to see so many grave markers.

Then I looked closer: 70% of the markers have no name.
What was supposed to be a thrusting breakthrough became a battle of attrition. The British and Empire forces advanced just five miles, at a cost of at least a quarter of a million casualties. Their one consolation was that the Germans had also suffered grievously.
To this day, historians question why Haig continued to push his army deeper.  [BBC]
Standing there on a beautiful sunny day, the product of an easy life, I could barely imagine how this place was in September 1917.

Just one More Conversation

I hiked back to the bus stop. The bus would not come for another 45 minutes, so I popped in to a cheerful cafe and ordered a beer.

I sat there thinking of my dad, and the conversations we never had.

My father had never been able to visit the memorial. I deeply regret not taking him for a walk through Tyne Cot.

It would have been a good conversation in that little cafe.

Transcribed by my grandfather from a broadside, published by The Poet's Box, Dundee, Scotland.
By the side of his sword they found him
Covered with wounds was he
His hands tightly clasping a picture
Of those he no more would see
With the Union Jack wrapped round him
The flag he died to save
Near the spot where he nobly fell fighting
He was laid in a soldier's grave

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