Wed 21 April 2021

As Remembrance Sunday approaches, a personal story from Otto English about how the past is far too often sanitised to make people who were never there feel better about their family, our collective past and our country. 

Share this article

When I was a child, my mum would tell me the story of how my grandfather, Martin, enlisted in the First World War. Grandad grew up, during the turn of the century, in a small hill village on the Staffordshire-Cheshire border. He was the son of a dairy farmer and lay preacher in the Methodist chapel that sat at the foot of a rocky outcrop known as Mow Cop. 

As mum told it, at some point in 1914, the dairy farm had had some machinery put in, but during that summer a small but vital piece was lost. Martin was blamed and there had been a fight. Fed up and angry, and perhaps hungry for adventure, he climbed out of a bedroom window and enlisted in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Two weeks after he’d left for the front, my great-grandfather put his hand in his pocket and found the missing part. 

The story had an epic quality. There was something of The Four Feathers in there – a touch of the John Buchan’s.

Martin went on to fight at Ypres, the Somme and Arras and we knew this because he wrote the names in the front of the Bible he carried with him throughout the war. Finally he made it back to Staffordshire “on the last boat” and collapsed exhausted into his mother’s arms on the doorstep of the farm. Of which more later.

Shortly afterwards, he met my grandmother Lizzie. And, shortly after that, she became pregnant and they married. She lost that baby but had six more. 

In the inter-war era, Martin became well known locally – and not always for the right reasons. He inherited that small farm but he didn’t want to be a farmer, practically gave it away, and ended up working down the pit. He was always afraid that another war was coming and stockpiled food. He had a violent temper and once tied a man to a tree and refused to cut him free. His children were often afraid of him.

A year or two after the end of the Second World War, someone told him that two of my aunts had been seen talking to some German prisoners of war and Martin shaved the girls’ hair off for “fraternising with the enemy”.

I witnessed none of this. As a child from the south, growing up in a fairly prosperous middle-class family, a visit to my grandparents’ house felt like a journey into a Victorian novel. They had no central heating and no telephone. They cooked off an oil stove. They had a bathroom at the back – but I never saw them use it. Grandad kept a loaded rifle behind the desk in the pokey living room, where the hearth fire never gutted. Sometimes he’d shoot rabbits with it, mostly it just sat there – but the gun was never far out of reach when the gate at the end of the path went. 

In one corner of that room sat two broken wireless sets and a black and white television. In the other, lay my grandmother – who spent the last years of life in bed, greeting nurses and visitors. 

There wasn’t much for a child of the 1980s to do in a house like that. Sometimes I’d sit on the wall outside with my sister, or climb Mow Cop. Other times, when bad weather kicked in, we’d sit hunched together in that dark sitting room and I’d read the cartoons in my grandparents’ copy of the Daily Express until mum would say: “Tell him about the war, dad!” 

After a bit of cajoling, he’d oblige. He’d talk about 1914 and how they were all marched off. He’d talk about the lice and maggots and the mud. As he went on, his eyes would start to fill and he’d talk about lost friends – and one friend in particular – until I could no longer really hear what he was saying and just sat there watching him cry. It was all very much at odds with my mother’s version of events and my Victor comics. At this point, my grandmother would pull herself up in bed and shout: “Is he talking about the war again? He is, isn’t he; he’s talking about the bloody war.”

There would be an awkward silence, apart from his sobbing, and I’d wonder how long it would be before I could go out and sit on the wall again.

I loved my granddad. I never saw the angry middle-aged man with a violent temper. I got the good end of him. He would write me spidery letters telling me the importance of being a kind person, to respect my family and how I should put my trust in God. I wonder now, who those letters were really for.    

In 1984, both of my grandparents died in quick succession. 

As I got older, and much to my mother’s irritation, I became interested in the truth of it all. I started, in particular, to question that bit in the story where granddad caught the “last boat” home. What last boat? In 1918, the war was over. And had he really collapsed on the doorstep? Of course, once you start to question one bit, you end up questioning the lot. My grandfather had had an active imagination. He once claimed to have invented the Plimsoll line and insisted he’d inspired the Spitfire. 

A few years ago, my mum developed Alzheimer’s and I was faced with the awful slash and burn that comes with extracting someone from the family home. In among the paperwork, I found a short obituary of Martin written by my uncle who had done some research in the 1990s. Families are masters of propaganda. Generations edit in and edit out – exaggerate and delete, embolden and romanticise.

Here – hidden away in a drawer – was my grandfather’s truth. Yes, he had been attached to the heroic Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, but all the glory stopped there. Actually he had been in the machine gun corps. 

The machine gun corps was known as “The Suicide Club”  and with good reason. They were among the most hated people on the Western Front and a prime target for German shells, mortars and bullets. If they were captured at all, they didn’t last long. Almost a third of those who joined were killed or wounded. There’s little doubt that those who survived were traumatised.

A World War One Maxim gun could fire 500 bullets a minute, with a range of nearly 3,000 metres. Martin and his comrades would have taken hundreds, maybe thousands of men’s lives in the prime of their youth. Perhaps it was the memory of that which reduced him to sobs in old age.

Nowadays, there is much sentimentality about both wars and the men who were obliged to live, fight and die in them. The mawkishness attached to World War One is particularly egregious. Ordinary men, whose lives were uprooted and ruined, are uniformly lionised as heroes. They mostly weren’t. They hadn’t for the most part asked to be a part of it. There was nothing intrinsically special about their generation. They were unfortunate victims of time. Few, if any, would have defined themselves as heroes of war and many visited the psychological scars of it, in one way or another, on the generation that followed.

Since 1945, our corner of the world has gone untouched by such unimaginable horror. I, and most likely you, have not had to don uniform and go off to fight for some pointless cause to further some pointless ambition. As with my mother’s telling of my grandfather’s war, the past is far too often sentimentalised and sanitised to make people who were never there feel better about their family, our collective past and our country. 

As Britain reels like a drunk on the footpath of destiny, we would all do well to dig for the truth instead.

Thank youfor reading this article

New to Byline Times? Find out about us

Our leading investigations include Brexit Bites, Empire & the Culture War, Russian Interference, Coronavirus, Cronyism and Far Right Radicalisation. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.

Support our journalists

To have an impact, our investigations need an audience.

But emails don’t pay our journalists, and nor do billionaires or intrusive ads. We’re funded by readers’ subscription fees:

More stories filed under Culture