The 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month....
I never go to a remembrance day service. I never wear a poppy in November, although I buy several.
It's not that I don't care, but rather that I care too much. From childhood I knew what the human cost of war was. My Mum and Nan told me that, often.
Nanna, born in 1915, would tell me the tale of her brother Harry's safe return from World War I in 1918, of her mother dropping whatever she held and screaming, of this stranger entering the house and hugging everyone, of how when he hugged her, she screamed. Seventy years plus later, Nan could still remember the shock at his return.
And so Armistice day was marked every year with poppies and prayers. The war was given a name, The Great War, the War to End All Wars, and life went on.
And 21 years later, War happened again. My Nan was 24 when it started and had been married for 4 years to Grandad Leslie. (His Dad, by the way, had been injured and a POW in WWI and he had had to learn to sew left handed so as to resume his career as a master tailor)
For a little while life went on as usual, until conscription was extended to married men and fathers. I cannot remember exactly when Grandad Leslie went to war, but I do know Ma was born in 1941 and that he was either away already or away soon after. Ma has the letters, thin squares of tracing paper, close-written and impenetrable letters for Grandad wrote in copperplate and the letters were copied and shrunk to half size to make them easier to send but impossible to read. Letters which begin 'My Darling Wife,' and end 'With all my love, always your Leslie'. Unerringly cheerful letters , chatty letters, careful to avoid any unneccessary details of what he may have seen, nothing to offend a nervous wife and little child. Tales of the desert, of riding camels, hints of pyramids and always, always the wish of an end. That this year would be 'it'. That this Christmas would be one spent together.
One of his last letters said that he had had a field promotion.... this was now in Italy, near Brindisi, where they had gone in late 43. He told Nan to look out for the official notification, that a telegram would follow.
The telegram did come in June 1944. Nan squealed when she saw it- a promotion meant more pay- and ran upstairs to get Ma, a boisterous 3 year old, to read it. Ma remembers Nan opening the letter, clamping her hand to her mouth, screaming.
Grandad had died. He had been killed by injuries from a land mine. It took him three days to die, of blood poisoning after they had amputated his legs in a bid to save him. He died on 9th May 1944. His 29th birthday.
No official notification of his promotion was ever received.
My Nan and Ma experienced the hardships of war first hand. Nan had to get a job, because the widow's pension was so small. Ma went to school a full year early so that Nan could work.She says that barely a day passed when Nanna didn't cry. VE day, barely a year later, was no time of celebration for her. Nan wouldn't let her attend the street parties and kept inside, crying. Ma never had a birthday or Christmas with her father, never got to ask him could she get engaged, tell him she was married, a mother. He never saw her children or her children's children. Nan never had a better (or worse) half, never had a companion for her life. A widow at 29, she lived until she was 85. When she died, our first feeling was relief that she had finally been united with Grandad. How we hope that heaven is a spiritual realm so that they can be matched in age rather than the age they were when they died.
I was born in 1968, a full 24 years after Grandad's death. Nan talked of him often, loved the idea that Ma was a teacher as he had been, delighted in the idea that I followed on. She couldn't stand anything that glorified war. She hated remembrance day and said that what she needed was one day a year to be able to forget: for her, every day was a day of remembrance.
And so, 11th November is nothing special to our family. I watch the service, I cry my way through the music, join in the hymns and prayers and feel so in debt to those who march, representatives of the many who have fought for their country and way of life, who fought for liberty.
And I weep for what will be.
That there will be other wars seems inevitable. That other wives (and husbands) and children will live when what they love best is dead is inevitable. Conflict and its natural successor, War, are a part of Human nature. And as long as there are people who insist that their way is the only way and that their beliefs are the only beliefs, then there will be fighting.
My Grandad fought for his country. He fought for a way of life that, perhaps, has gone for good. He fought for liberty from oppression and tyranny, but most of all he fought for love, because most of all he fought for a better world for his wife and daughter. When conflict arises and war seems inevitable my prayer today and always is that those in power may remember that soldiers are humans, and not elite fighting machines. That we may only go to war as a last resort, and that war may never be entered into for monetary or political glory. And I pray that we may honour those who died for us in creating a just and honourable country, where our past is remembered and honoured and our future rests on liberty for all and that very strong sense of British justice that makes us all equal.
May I apologise for the lack of photos of Nan, Ma or Grandad Leslie in this post. I will get a couple of pictures of them onto the computer and put them in.