My grandfather's boxes
I remember my grandfather as a quiet, soberly-dressed old man whose passion was classical music and who lived in a genteel corner of Richmond-on-Thames. His house backed onto a little creek, where mandarin and goldeneye ducks and other exotic waterfowl congregated beneath an ornate Chinese bridge. There was always tea at my grandfather’s place – lots of tea – as well as cake and biscuits, some of which were not all that fresh. The only colourful aspect of those visits, apart from the ducks, was a life-sized full-length portrait of my great grandmother in a vivid pink evening gown, which dominated the front sitting room. This grand lady had taken on the task of raising my father and my uncle in the 1920s because, for some reason, my grandfather couldn’t manage it.
Retired from a sporadic career as a barrister, my grandfather now spent much of his time cataloguing sheet music at the British Museum, work he undertook on a voluntary basis and for which he ultimately received an OBE (Order of the British Empire). As a ten-year-old boy, this did not impress me very much. My grandfather’s life struck me as sedate, not to say boring. I knew he had fought in both world wars, but he never talked about the action he had seen, at least not to me.
Then, a year or two before he died, my grandfather gave me a book from his library. By this time I was about twelve years old, and beginning to take an interest in history. It was an account of the Battle of the Somme, which was fought between July and November 1916 at the cost of around 125,000 British dead (and at least as many Germans). What struck me most forcefully were the photographs detailing not only the obliteration of towns, villages and landscapes, but the gruesome effects of shelling “when the defence had no deep shelter”. Even in blotchy black and white, they were the stuff of nightmares.
I discovered that my grandfather had served in the Lancashire Fusiliers right through the First World War, and had seen action in some of its bloodiest episodes, including Gallipoli, Passchendaele, and the campaigns of 1918. It was much the same story with his older brother, who was part of the original British Expeditionary Force that had crossed over to France in 1914.
According to one story, great uncle Alan had got drunk with his fellow officers during the crossing and climbed up onto a table (as young officers will) just as the ship hit a large wave. Alan fell and broke his leg. By the time he returned to active duty a few months later, all the junior officers who had made the crossing with him had been killed.
After my grandfather died, his papers made their way to my parents’ home in rural East Anglia. Most of them ended up being stored in a disused bungalow on the edge of our rambling garden, where they battled damp and biological assault from panic-stricken owls, who would fly down the chimney in pursuit of smaller birds and find themselves trapped. Among the papers was a collection of 1700 concert programmes, going all the way back to 1908. My grandfather, an ardent concert-goer, had kept a record of every event he had attended, both in England and across Europe over a half a century.
My grandfather was a compulsive record-keeper, but it was to be another thirty years before I discovered that this instinct went beyond matters musical. In 2012 the family house was sold. It was then I found my grandfathers’ boxes from the First World War. Inside were regimental year books, items of military equipment, a divisional history of the East Lancashire Division, captured German documents, an officer training manual, a copy of Wyndham Lewis’s vorticist magazine Blast from 1915, lists of postings, photographs, a solitary letter from Gallipoli, and a huge cache of military trench maps. It was clear that my grandfather, then a young man in his twenties, had started keeping these assiduous records while serving on the Western Front, when the chances of being killed were very high. It was as if he felt the need to flesh out the history of what might prove to be a pitifully short life, to bulk out the fact of his existence with as much detail as possible.
To modern eyes, those details are sobering, even shocking. The manual, given to officers of the East Lancashire Division by an incoming commander, reminds its recipients to: “Be bloodthirsty, and never cease to think how you can best kill the enemy or help your men to do so.” The regimental log records a single day’s attack, in September 1918, when the 10th Manchester Battalion lost three hundred out of its four hundred and fifty men, and twelve out of sixteen of its officers. On these occasions, many men simply vanished in No Man’s Land, their remains recovered only weeks or months later, if at all.
My grandfather’s boxes provide much of the background to Two Storm Wood. They helped me reconstruct with some confidence times, places and mind-sets very different from my own. I’ll never know if my grandfather would approve of the result. All the same, the novel stands as a small tribute to him: a man I hardly knew, but whose determination not to be forgotten, to leave something behind, still echoes in the minds of his descendants a hundred years on.
- Philip Gray -