100 years ago…

My Grandfathers

The 4th August 1914.

The start of the First World War.  The Great War.  The War to end all Wars.

Two men: one living in London, one living in a suburban town of Paris.  One became a tommy, one un poilu.

They were my grandfathers, Alfred K (granddad) and Louis Leon D (grand-père).  Two men born into the Victorian age who were drawn into the bloodiest war the world had ever seen.

“The lamps are going out all over Europe…” Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, 1914

I was only five when granddad died and growing up, Dad told stories about the family which interested me and I wanted to know more but Dad’s knowledge was limited.  I began to read the poetry of that time and those poems were and remain to me now, some of the most powerful collection of words I have ever read.  So much so that many of the poems I wrote from the age of 13 onwards were about that subject.  I did not want to list times and places, I wanted to talk about the emotions and feelings, that was more important to me.

“The sunken road… (was) … filled with pieces of uniform, weapons and dead bodies.”Lieutenant Ernst Junger, German soldier, The Somme, 1916

Granddad did not see action until October 1915 when he left for France and in July 1916 along with his brothers, experienced the hell that was the Battle of the Somme.  And later that month he lost one of his older brothers.

“What a bloodbath, what horrid images, what a slaughter.  I just cannot find the words to express my feelings. Hell cannot be this dreadful.”  Albert Joubaire, French soldier, Verdun, 1916.

I never knew grand-père as he died many years before I was born and even though Mum remembers things, not enough to fill in all the blanks.  He fought at Verdun in 1916/17 and was wounded which resulted in the loss of his left eye.

I think that it is important to remember this anniversary.  It is important to me to remember my grandfathers and to try to imagine what they experienced and how that shaped their futures once they returned home to the their families and the women who waited for them and who would become their wives.

Did they ever think for one moment that it would happen all over again in such a short time and did they shake their heads in disbelief when it did?  I think they must have done.

So, I will remember them and be lucky and privileged that I knew one of them, if only for a few short years.  And for the multitude who never made it home, I hope there is a family somewhere that remembers them still.

The 26th candle

Dear Dad,

You died today.

It doesn’t matter that it was in 1986; and although the raw pain has gone, I do and probably will forever get a pang of misery and regret when this day comes and I will, as I have done every year without fail, light a candle for you in a church.

That was a difficult year, such a difficult year. When your only sibling died that February, the pain etched on your face at his death was heartbreaking. You had that stunned look of disbelief and you must have thought about all those wasted years when you did not have much contact with each other due to stupid, stupid family nonsense.

His dying was the final straw; the catalyst that set in motion the countdown to you dying nearly eight weeks later.  There is never a good thing you can say about family dying but these events did bring our families closer, much closer than we had ever been when growing up.

Yours was the first dead body I had ever seen and even though I did not want to see you lying in your coffin, I was curious and you looked so peaceful; sleeping the permanent sleep.  When I bent to kiss your forehead, it came as a shock at how hard and cold your head was. Daft really, I mean, what did I expect? You looked so smart in your suit, and on the day of your funeral, when we were saying our last goodbyes, I placed the poem I wrote for you in your breast pocket next to K’s Star of David.

The turn out for your funeral was huge, not surprising really as you had met so many people during your life.  All your friends from the golf club, non golf friends and old family friends that you were still in touch with, professional acquaintances, the staff and Directors from your factory. And of course, most importantly, your family.  I sat and cried through the whole thing and could not sing Jerusalem, even though it was a favourite of yours.

The golf club you belonged to had its flag at half mast – mind you, you collapsing and dying whilst playing a round of golf must have shaken them up somewhat, bloody good job you were winning by the way!

It would have been nice however, if alot of those who professed to like you and Mum, had bothered to stay in touch with her after you died. She was dropped like a hot potato by so many who had greedily enjoyed her wonderful cooking and hospitality over the years, but then shunned her so quickly after your death. That hurt her very much Dad, and I often wonder how I would feel or if I would say anything to them if I met them again.

I know I was not easiest person to live with when I was growing up.  I had alot of the usual teenage shit to deal with and I truly believe that you saw alot of yourself in me so tried to curtail those more spontaneous outbursts.  Ah Dad, if only you knew the half of it, how sometimes you didn’t make it easy for me and I suffered at your words and actions.  But you know what?  I was not bad; I was confused and angry and I didn’t know why, I do now.

I wish that I could share with you all that I have discovered about your parents, particularly Granddad.  He hardly ever talked about his family so you did not know much and I have discovered such alot!  Did you know he was one of 10 children, and one of his brothers did not come home from the Somme?  I know that would have interested you and that you would have gone to Thiepval to pay your respects. K and I will do that one day, I promise.  I know that you always said that you had Polish ancestors through Nan’s family, but did you know that you also had German and Dutch?  K and I walked their London streets last summer and tried to imagine what it would have been like in their day.  Oh, by the way, the building where Nan was born still exists.

I got used to your absence a long time ago, and that was something I never thought would happen.  You were not perfect, you had many faults and it was not always easy having you as my Dad, but know that I loved you, still love you and have never forgotten you.

You always liked my poems Dad, and I wrote this for your funeral:

IN MEMORIUM

When death was one,
Your grief was great.
You pondered memories of your London past.

When death was two,
Your sorrow true.
Your feelings though, were sweet relief.

When death was three,
No words expressed
The silent tears wrenched from within.

Now death is four.
We bear the scars, our grief immense, our sorrow true.
We gather the ashes you leave behind and pick up our hearts as you want us to.

Several years later, when I was sorting my head out, many things became clear to me about myself and I wrote this by way of an apology:

DAD

You died too young,
I was not there
To rush into your open arms.
Tell you that I care.

My growing years were fraught with pain,
Could never find the love inside,
Display it as I ought.
I am that fool with much to hide.

I find the words you wrote to me,
Cannot stop the falling tears.
Reading them turns back the clock
Of how I wasted many years.

I light a candle every year,
Assuage my guilt, lest I forget
That you meant everything to me,
And I miss you yet.

I still love you very much,
This message is belated.
I was stupid then, but know I know,
It was never you, but me I hated.

Love M-A xx

At the 11th hour…

At this time of year, I always remember those who did not return from war/conflict, whatever you choose to call it, and those who did but who return with physical, emotional and mental traumas that are hard to witness. So, as I have written quite alot of poetry with a military theme to them, I thought I would share three with you.

I wrote this one in memory of my granddad Alfred who, alongside his three brothers, witnessed the carnage of the Somme. Sadly, one brother was killed in September 1916 and his remains were never found.

07:30hrs

The rum was lost, but we had to go over.
The line was set, we had but one chance.
With a sign of the cross, or whatever religion,
We think what the fuck are we doing in France?
The silence is deafening, the guns have gone silent.
The countdown begun to the whistles blow.
And over we go, walking in bullets.
And onwards and onwards we march and we go.
A father is lost, and a son and a brother.
So many men on the first day of battle.
I would rather not be here, rather not suffer this.
Rather not face the push: treated like cattle.
1st of July, 1916,
Seven thirty am, and over we’ve gone.
They said we could do it, that we would make history,
In this hell hole of mud that we call the Somme.

My dad (who lived through the Blitz in London’s east end) and I wrote this one together about WW1 when I was about 13/14 years old. Those of you familiar with the poetry from that era will spot lines taken from poems by W.B Yeats and Wilfred Owen.

PREMONITION

I know that I shall meet my fate,
I know that I shall die.
Fighting in this bloody war, fighting til I die.

We all signed up, we thought it right to fight for King and country.
What romantic fairytale,
Oh England fair, our country.

But as we stand here in our trench, we think of all at home,
we think of what we have to do,
our firing arms to load.

We get the signal, off we go rifles in our hands.
Fighting’s in our blood and mind,
protection for our land.

We get a little present, it’s just a little bomb.
We are blown sky-high and to the winds.
What did we do wrong?

Now all is quiet, I cannot see my friends, they have all gone.
Do not desert me God,
I’m all alone.

Sing, oh angels, sing to me.
Take me by the hand.
Lift me from this earthly grave, take me to your land.

So give us Lord our daily bread and with your love enthrall.
I gaze upon this weary land
as the bugle sounds recall.

Dulce et decorum est propartria mori.
War’s a bloody waste of time, now tell me that’s a lie.

I wrote this poem back in 2005, after watching a programme about the extermination of Jews in the various camps but namely Auschwitz. So, although the number six in the final line refers to the estimated numbers of Jews killed, this poem is also dedicated to the huge numbers of other ‘undesirables’ who perished in Hitler’s death camps, and to those who continue to die in circumstances where humanity and compassion are absent. My one wish is that none of my Jewish ancestors met their end this way…

AUSCHWITZ 27/01/05 PLUS 60 YEARS

These are my numbers, etched into my soul.
They define me, because my name no longer exists.
But my identity is in that pile of shoes – but I can’t see them,
But I know they are there and will I be remembered?

I am afraid of this familiar; the brutal grey.
They look like me, so why the hatred?

A pile of stench, a smoke-filled sky.

And human ash, and human ash…

My being: who will remember me as I float down from permanent fire, stoked in hell?

If you light one candle, you will remember me.
But if you light 6, you remember us all.

I also think about my other grandfather, grand père Louis who fought in Verdun in WW1, losing an eye for his troubles, and also my mother who along with her family, lived through WW2 in occupied France. She can still vividly remember the way things were then, especially in the depths of winter when her bedroom ceiling would have sheets of ice on it and she would have to sleep under the contents of her wardrobe in order to try and keep warm.

Lest we forget…

My attention was drawn today about the potential use of Trinity Gardens/Tower Hill Memorial site to host Christmas parties for City bankers.

Shocked is not the only word that sprang to mind when I heard about this, anger made herself known as well. 

I have no connection to the Merchant Navy other than @antijanner who I follow on Twitter, a lovely person who is passionate about his job in the Merchant Navy and loves his life at sea.  None of my ancestors (to my knowledge) were in the MN, but I did have some who served in the army and I was brought up to respect the military and honour their ultimate sacrifice, especially on Remembrance Sunday – that also includes respect to those from civilian organisations who worked alongside the military in just as awful conditions. 

I had a great-uncle who was killed in action in the Somme and is without a grave, commemorated only on a wall at Thiepval.  When I discovered this last year, I made a promise to myself that one day I will visit that place and pay my respects to him.  I never knew him but he was an older brother to my beloved grandfather and that is good enough for me.

Now, there is no one left alive who served in WW1 either as part of the military or in a civilian capacity, and those still alive who served in WW2 and subsequent conflicts of the last century are starting to dwindle away also.  HOWEVER, that is not a reason to forget about what they did for this country and certainly NEVER a reason to forget about those who did not come back so we must protect these places of quiet reflection and remembrance; these memorial gardens and cemeteries FOREVER from being cheapened – lest we forget.

So, bearing that in mind, what possible reason could Moving Venue have in placing a request to Tower Hamlets council to use Trinity Gardens as a venue for a Christmas party for City bankers (feel free to substitute a W for the B)?

They say that they will be careful and respectful, etc, blah, blah, blah.  Well, we all know what people are like after they have had a skinful and bankers are certainly no different.  If young Mr Gilmore can claim that he was off his tits on drugs and booze when he was swinging off the flag at the Cenotaph and therefore, did not know where he was or what he was doing then these people will certainly lose the ability to respect where they are also.

One article I read said that there were no suitable venues within the Square Mile big enough to host something for about 300 people so they have no choice but to look at gardens etc.  Yeah, whatever…

WELL YOU KNOW WHAT?  DON’T HOST IT THEN OR, BOOK ONE OF THE OTHER HUNDRED OR SO VENUES IN THE WEST END THAT WOULD LOVE TO ACCOMMODATE YOU!

This is a Memorial Garden and should not be used in this way.  Would you like it if I hosted a party in the cemetery where your family are buried and gave permission for the guests to relieve themselves on your beloved’s grave, or fornicate on your child’s grave?  I don’t think so and in my opinion this is no different.

Have we become so jaded and blasé about everything that we have lost all rhyme and reason about what is important anymore?  Not whilst I still draw breath and I hope that Moving Venue change their mind about this.