Sunday, 9 November 2008

Remembrance Sunday

There has been a fair bit of soldiering in my family. At least three generations before mine have served in the army, including both parents (unusually, my mother, a sergeant in the ATS, outranked my father). Mainly wartime service in the ranks -- nothing posh or professional -- though a great grandfather was a Victorian ranker overseas, a great uncle was an NCO in the Royal Dragoons, and in WW1 my grandfather rose through the ranks in an infantry regiment from sergeant to 2nd lieutenant. A lot of men did -- there was something of a shortage of proper gentlemen. So did his best friend from home, in the same regiment, who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross in 1916. Grandad never talked about it, other than to say "He earned it, boy."

So, you could say they'd "done their bit", and had plenty to remember on Remembrance Sunday. But it was never much of a fixture in our family calendar. There was no visit to the local memorial, no wearing of medals.

Like most boys of my generation, my toys and games and light reading were almost totally centred on the experience of WW2. But unlike a lot of fathers, even those who had served in the war, mine would take pains to explain that bullets hurt much more and did rather more damage than they appeared to do in Westerns, and that soldiering was mainly very boring. It's only in retrospect that I can see how alien the absurdly heroic war stories in boys' comics like Victor and Hotspur must have seemed to him.

Above all, I think my family -- in common with most "citizen soldiers" -- resented the way the politicians would try to smuggle in a conservative militarised ideology on the back of their wartime service. Remembrance Sunday, with its marching and medals and shouted orders, looked back to a pre-war world that, actually and symbolically, the 1945 election had tried to banish. Yes, they had been loyal -- if grumpy -- servicemen and women but, No, they would no longer snap to attention, thank you. Yes, they had lost friends and relatives but, No, they were not going to mourn on command. My father attended a couple of Burma Star booze-ups immediately after the War, but that was it.

So, I was quite surprised to discover that, somewhere around his 80th year, Dad had finally joined the Dunkirk and Royal Signals Associations, and had started attending local Remembrance Sunday services; he had even obtained replacement medals to wear. It seemed quite out of character.

Oddly, I think it had something to do with media coverage of the wars in the Falklands and Iraq, and in particular the new focus on post-traumatic stress disorders, and civilian resentment of and aggression towards returning service personnel. After decades of feeling that you should not dwell on the War and just get on with life, I think he finally "came out", as it were, as a veteran, in solidarity with newer generations of young men returning from the wars. I suspect he felt able to stand alongside them, in remembrance of the terrible things that had happened to them all, because -- after a lifetime of standing aside -- he had satisfied himself it was now his choice and not his duty to do so.

Postscript -- I forgot to add this little twist yesterday:

My father had the unusual forenames "Douglas Haig". Born in 1918 to an infantryman who had fought in the trenches in France and then wisely managed to become a musketry instructor, you might have thought other names would have suggested themselves. Commanders are rarely popular with British soldiers, and Haig had given more cause for unpopularity than most. It's hard to speculate what grandad's motive might have been. From all I've heard, I don't think irony was his strong suit.

When his turn came, my father, as a despatch rider, saw active service in France (he was evacuated from Dunkirk), the Western Desert, India and Burma. Of various Brass Hats, the only commander he ever spoke well of was Slim of the 14th Army, a man who seems to have commanded the universal loyalty and affection of his men -- an unusual achievement. It only occurred to me very recently, when discussing Dad's name with a friend, that -- had he chosen to continue the precedent set by his father -- I might well have been named "William Slim" ... I'm so glad I wasn't. "Slim" is not a name I could answer to now without some embarrassment.

No comments: