The past is a mysterious place and I don’t want to go there.

MedalsPhil: This isn’t the post I meant to write today, you’ll have to wait for next week for that one. While we have written a book together, we don’t normally pre-plan our blog posts. This means that on Tuesdays, I have a pleasant surprise when I read whatever Candice has written. This week was particularly thought-provoking.

Our families have very different experiences of wartime. My maternal great-grandfather, John Bridges, fought in World War 1. I’m proud to have the miniature versions of his medals, these being the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal respectively. From these  I can tell that he served from the very start of the war. Other than this I know little of his story as like most men from his generation they didn’t talk about their experience as the memories were so terrible they prefered not to re-live them.

In WW2, my paternal grandfather was an engineer working on high precision implements and so spared from the fighting. On the other side, my grandfather escaped from Poland to fly Spitfires for the RAF along with many of his countrymen. Amusingly, a few years ago, the British National Party ran an anti-immigration campaign using a photo of a Spitfire as the main image. They didn’t realise it was from a Polish squadron…

My father was born during the war but after evacuation had ceased. He later went on to be a volunteer in the Royal Observer Corps watching out for Russian aircraft and latterly atomic bombs. After this, he volunteered with the Air Training Corps. National Service missed him by a few years though.

So, with such a military background, surely I aspired to join the forces as a youth?

Not a bit of it. Quite the opposite in fact. Maybe it was a visit to the vast military graveyards in France when I was 12 or simply an overactive imagination, I have always viewed war as a case of “there but for the grace of God go I”. Born in 70 years earlier than I’d probably been shipped off to the killing fields of Ypres or the Somme. 45 years or so and it could have been Normandy.

Putting myself in the position of anyone involved in these conflicts is incredibly painful. Sitting in a cold and muddy trench, sharing my limited food with rats and knowing that at some time in the future I’d be forced to climb out and run towards a well dug-in enemy is pretty much my idea of hell. Add in the constant artillery bombardment and it’s a scene unimaginably awful. When the whistle goes and it’s time to go “over the top”, the chances are you’ll endure a long and painful death, not the quick lights out portrayed by Hollywood.

For this reason, I’ve never been able to read the diaries and reminiscences of those who did have to do this. They are me from a different age.

It’s also the reason I’m first in the queue to buy a poppy every year.

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2 Comments

Filed under Phil, Writing

2 responses to “The past is a mysterious place and I don’t want to go there.

  1. Andy in Germany

    I was fortunate too: my grandad was on the railways and had to stay at work (I blogged about him on my railway blog some years back) and on the other side my Grandpa wrestled with the conflict between wanting to stand up and be counted, and his Christian faith, and worked in a non-combatant role.

    Now I have a Japanese wife and I live in Germany: I’m glad there aren’t any questions to be answered about my family in the war.

    A few years ago, I gave my son a hug in public and an older, german man we know came over to me and said “My dad was called up a month after I was born and he died in Russia: I don’t know what it is like to be held by a father. Don’t ever stop hugging yor boys.”

    On the other hand a work colleague told me how his Grandad was in Finland during the occupation and got to know local people (a lot of German soldiers tried hard not to be the arrogant thugs seen in war movies). He got on so well, the families kept in touch and visited each other after the war. The best part of the story is that my colleague was about to go and see his nephew marry the finnish granddaughter…

    Violence just makes more violence. Let’s hope the modern day thugs don’t try and make it all start again…

  2. Thanks Andy, you’ve brought a tear to my eye. This whole conversation has made me want to find out more about what happened with my family. My Dad actually ended up doing national service in the RAF, years after the war, and it was actually one of the best times of his life so there is an upside, but only if war is not involved.

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