23 May 2014

War stories

My dad went over to Normandy with the 51st Highland Division just a few days after the D-Day invasion. He was nineteen. When I was a child he told me the story that as they fought their way inland he was ordered to dig an L-shaped trench with his best pal, and having dug it they both hunkered down during an episode of shelling, each choosing a side of the trench at random. One shell landed very close-by and as he regained his composure after the explosion Dad discovered that there was nothing much left of his pal - blown apart in an instant.

Dad never talked much about the war until he was very old, and then he told me of his time at the Battle of Falaise, famous as the scene of an awesome slaughter of trapped Germans by the advancing Allies. He described to me how at times in Falaise he had to walk over a carpet of bodies in order to move forwards. And I have to remember - he was just nineteen.

He also told me of looking up in awe and watching a one thousand-bomber raid near Caen. More than a thousand aircraft dropping their bombs over the course of just an hour or so. And he was just nineteen.

And he also told me of the afternoon near Falaise when he headed alone into the woods just for a moment's peace and was startled to come across about twenty young and terrified Germans crouched in a ditch, and who immediately threw their hands in the air and allowed this nineteen year old lad to march them back and into captivity, to great applause from his older comrades. His enemies were all so desperate to survive the unfolding carnage they had no thought at all of using their many guns against the single weapon of this solitary Scot.

And he told me of the time his company startled a group of German officers, completely taken by surprise in a wooded clearing, and as these high-ranking Germans made a panicked attempt to get away in a staff car Dad was ordered to open fire with his big Bren-gun, and the car soon stopped and the officers were dead. And Dad was just nineteen.

But he told me most of the people he actually saw being shot were colleagues accidentally shot in the back in the chaos of battle.

Then he got wounded by shell-fire rather ingloriously when he left the safety of a ditch to retrieve some cooked breakfast from a frying pan that had been abandoned as some shelling had begun. As he was carted off by the medics he was told that the smile on his face was dazzling, because all he could think about was his luck at getting a flesh wound just a few hours before a big push forward was planned. He was transported back to Britain for several months of treatment and recovery, and he rejoined his unit when they had reached the Netherlands and he found that many more of his friends were dead.

The shrapnel from the wound was visible in Dad's leg as I grew up. I used to marvel at the glint of grey metal just below the skin on many sunny days, and it was still inside him on the day he died, and perhaps it saved his life. I was aged about six when I asked him if the wound meant that he was a hero, and he told me 'No, I got it in my leg because I was just a stupid hungry boy.'

And when I was seventeen, spending the Summer working on a farm in Perthshire and living with my Granny in Dad's childhood home, I found a little diary he had kept of his days fighting in France. I most remember one simple entry, which just read, 'Stepped on a mine today. Got the lads to clear off, then I jumped, but it was a dud.'

And the memory of Dad's war makes me think about what I was doing when I was nineteen - worrying about exams and my lanky appearance, and busy getting drunk most weekends and chasing girls. And it makes me think of the nineteen year-old lads around me now, worrying about their appearance and their mobile phones and i-pods and Facebook pages, and getting drunk and chasing girls. And I try to remind myself of Dad's war whenever I consider myself to be under any kind of stress. But when I asked Dad what he really thought of his times in the war, instead of the gloomy appraisal that I expected he just told me, 'Mostly, I had a great time. A wonderful time. It was the best time of my life. I got away from home and had a great adventure, and I've never had as much fun since.' He was about seventy-five when he told me that. He almost made me feel jealous, and diminished, and boring, although I'm still glad I've not had a war like him.

Another entry I remember from his diary just said, 'A grand day.' I think that would be a reference to the sunny weather of France, but to me it seemed an odd thing to report of a day a war.

And my Dad's war makes me also think about my Grandpa's earlier war – the war of my Mother's Dad. As a teenager my Grandpa had to kill a young German boy-soldier with his bayonet during World War I, and two personalities really ended in that incident because my Grandpa, I have heard, was never the same person again. He returned haunted and dangerously damaged by that single hand-to-hand encounter. The fact that he had to run a cold bayonet through someone in order to survive led to behaviour for much of the rest of his life that damaged others close to him. I only found out about that behaviour a few years ago, fo to me he was just a quiet and kindly old man.

And my other, older grandfather – my dad's dad and who I never met - was a 2nd Boer War soldier in Africa with several victims claimed from his misguided service for the British Empire. And who knows what fighters there were in the generations before that? Which makes me wonder if, emerging from an extended network of soldiering males, my brother and I may be the first male generation for a long time in that genetic pathway that has not killed other people.

I am glad that I have not had to kill or be killed, yet.

1 comment:

Elephant's Child said...

My father was a German Jew. His mother escaped from Germany without him (and they never saw each other or spoke again), but I don't know what happened to his father (suspect one or other of the camps) or whether he had siblings.
To the end of his days he flatly refused to talk about war - or his family. But did say that no-one wins a war.