Lessons from history
This week, our history department took our annual trip of Year 9s to the battlefields of Belgium and France. Many history teachers will know the drill: Tyne Cot Cemetery’s awesome scale; the tragic majesty of the Menin Gate; forcing your students to spend more time reading the information displays in the excellent Cloth Hall museum in Ypres, or the Musee Somme in Albert; gasping at the incredible size of the Lochnagar crater; reflecting sombrely on the sacrifice of the Newfoundlanders at Beaumont-Hamel; and blowing off a little steam in the reconstructed trenches and tunnels of Sanctuary Wood. The fact that it’s so standard doesn’t stop it from being a valuable experience for the students, and long may it continue. However, for me, on what I think was my twelfth or thirteenth visit to the battlefields, this year was different.
It was different because we slipped in an additional stop. Just a quick ten minutes off the itinerary to an off-the-beaten-track site near Albert, known as the Peronne Road Cemetery. There, our slightly bemused students watched as I sought out a particular grave: that of my great grandfather, William.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a fantastic organisation, and it never ceases to be a source of amazement and pride to me that all the cemeteries I’ve ever visited are beautifully maintained and presented. Peronne Road is no different. The flower beds were weed-free, the headstones pristinely reflected the sun which broke the otherwise cloudy skies as we arrived, and a miniature rose bush blossomed on my great grandfather’s grave.
Peronne Road Cemetery
I’d never visited the grave before because, frankly, I didn’t know it existed. Both my grandfathers were dead long before I was born, and so my great-grandparents always seemed somehow too remote and too distant to investigate. My brother had recently done some digging, however, and uncovered details I had never known.
William was 34 when he joined the South Lancashire Regiment, along with many other St Helens men, in September 1914. He had worked in glass-making (fitting for a St Helens man), but was a coal miner when he enlisted. It’s possible he was carried away with the early enthusiasm for the war like so many others. However, he was comparatively old, and had four small children with his wife Jane, all under the age of ten, including Robert (6 years old, and my grandfather), and so there would have been no expectation that he join up. By 1911 he and his dependents were sharing a house with his two parents, both aged 74, and my guess is that, like many other working-class men of the era, he joined up because he was the sole breadwinner, and the army seemed to offer better pay, more stable employment, and possibly what seemed like a less dangerous existence than mining. After all, if it would all be over by Christmas, he’d follow his paycheques back home fairly quickly.
Instead, he found himself on the Western Front in February 1915, and was stationed in and around Ypres. The South Lancashire 5th Battalion, the St Helens Battalion, fought in the Second Battle of Ypres, which was notable for the first use of poison gas on the battlefield. The St Helens men were stationed around “Shell Trap Farm”, where fighting was particularly severe.
Shell Trap Farm, where William fought in the Second Battle of Ypres (Before and After)
It is almost certainly near Ypres where William was wounded in June that year, after which he was sent home for a spell. He was docked pay in September 1915 for going Absent Without Leave, which perhaps indicated an unwillingness to return to the front – unsurprising given what he had witnessed by that point. Nevertheless, return he did, and he was again hospitalised in February 1916. He was granted recuperative leave again in June after which he was “admonished” for overstaying his furlough, perhaps another indication of his reluctance to leave his wife and four children to return to the trenches. However, he did return, and when his battalion was sent to the Somme front in July that year, William went with them.
The Regimental Diary records that on 1st August 1916, the battalion moved up to reserve trenches at Oxford Copse. On 2nd August 1916, the entry reads : “8am: Valley shelled by 8′ Howitzers for 15 minutes and again at 2pm. Casualties 15 killed 17 Wounded.”
One of those fifteen dead men was my great grandfather, William. His commanding officer, A W Dennett, wrote to Jane:
“I am very sorry to tell you that your husband was killed in action yesterday. Please believe me when I say that you have the sympathy of every officer and man who knew your husband in your great loss. His cheery manner and fine soldierly qualities were always an example to others. He was, I think, the oldest soldier in the company, and I had hoped he would be spared to return home. He was killed instantly by a shell, and suffered no pain, and in giving up his life for his country died the most glorious death a man can die.”
On 9th November, his wife, Jane, mother of their four young children, signed a receipt for his personal effects: 1 identity disk, 1 metal matchbox, 1 metal ring, 1 cap badge, 1 pocket knife (broken), 2 photographs, 1 cotton bag.
Great Grandfather William
I never knew him. My father never knew him. My grandfather would have had only few memories from very early childhood. Looking at the grainy photo of him in his Private’s khaki cap, I can’t discern any family resemblance, although half his face is obscured by a huge soup-strainer moustache. At 5’7″, he was much shorter than I am, and his chest measurement on joining up of 26″ was significantly smaller than my waist measurement is now. In that regard, he was not unusual for the standard recruit in 1914- the restricted size of a labourer in St Helens in the Victorian era, grown to adulthood long before Lloyd George’s early social security reforms, and decades before Attlee’s welfare state lifted people like William out of hunger and grinding poverty.
Nevertheless, I’m only here because he was. Indeed, there are dozens of people in the St Helens area (and a little further afield now), descended from his four children, and their children, and their children, who are only the people they are because William had chance to have children before his life was ended in the industrial slaughter of World War One. Just in my specific branch of the family, he was directly responsible for the existence of one living grandchild, five living great grandchildren, and eight great, great grandchildren. Not a bad roll call.
However, as any walk around one of the cemeteries of the Great War will demonstrate, huge numbers of the men buried there were too young to have children. Their lines ended. Their children and grandchildren were never born. Their tragedy is not only in the loss of what they had been, but in the loss of what might have come after.
All this bore down on me a little as the battlefields trip approached. I do not consider myself a particularly sentimental man. Yet to my vague astonishment, I found myself sitting down on the night before our trip, and composing a letter to William. In it, I described his descendants, as well as I knew them, and particularly the branch of the family which led to my father, his sister, her daughters, and my own sister and brother, and on to our respective children. I even provided pictures of his grandson (my father) and his various great and great, great grandchildren, most of whom still carry his family name. The letter ended:
“It’s become common to refer to what became known as World War One, or the “Great War” as a time of incredible ‘waste’ of lives. That’s true, but it’s not the whole story. I don’t know if you were a religious man. Your descendants aren’t very religious at all, I have to say. But even if one doesn’t believe in an afterlife, we all live on through the impact we have on those who know us, and those who come after us. Your descendants have done ok. A generally happy, well-adjusted, long-lived and fun-loving group of people. Not perfect, but not bad. You, and your wife Jane, my great grandmother, are responsible for a fair bit of that.
It was this letter which I laid on his grave in front of fifty bemused schoolgirls. Almost as an aside, I noticed that his grave was next to the headstone of a Private Greenall, which is another very common St Helens name, also of the South Lancashire Regiment. Private Greenall was also killed on 2nd August, quite possibly by the same German shell. At school, one of my friends was also a Greenall. At this point, I found myself unable to look any students in the eye.
I’d been telling myself that this was essentially an intellectual pursuit; an inquisitive itch I had to scratch. A hundred years exactly separated me from the day when William was killed by an enormous German shell, in a trench on the blasted Somme battlefield, so I had reasoned that I couldn’t possibly feel an emotional investment. As a middle-class university graduate, my smartphone in my pocket, a comfortable coach of students waiting by the road to take us back to England via a Tunnel under the sea, I was separated from William not just by years, but by indescribably vast cultural, scientific and political change.
And yet, I reflected as I stood looking at his grave, if he’d lived to be 90 years old – a long-shot, I grant you, but his parents lived to well into their 70s even in 1911 – if he’d lived to be 90 years old, he would have known me. He’d possibly have had a squalling newborn me placed on his ancient knee, by a grandson who was too fond of the brown corduroy fashion disasters of 1970 and who was named after William’s own son.
He could have known me.
So I’m separated from William by just the span of a single lengthy human life. Which means our society is separated from William’s society by just the same span of a single human life. Indeed, there are still plenty of centenarians alive today who were alive then. There are no more who actually fought in the trenches, but certainly there are thousands who were alive when my great grandmother Jane received the pathetic possessions which were all she had left of the husband who was sent to the Somme to die. Suddenly, William was no longer an intellectual curiosity. He was very real, and his connection to me personally burst somewhere in my chest.
Back on the coach, I thanked the students for indulging me. As I looked at their happy, healthy faces, I wondered how many of them knew their great grandfathers. They’re the luckiest generation ever to have lived, perhaps, in that the sort of war which stopped William knowing me, or my father, is inconceivable.
Yet when William was born in 1880, the sort of War which was the First World War was also inconceivable, as the immensely powerful British Empire bestrode the globe as the unchallenged Superpower. And after William’s death, when the armistice came, people proclaimed that the slaughter of 1914-18 had been the War to End All Wars, and it was inconceivable that it would be repeated. Yet both my grandfathers, including William’s son, were enlisted again in the army in the 1939-45 conflict which destroyed even more families, and prevented even more lives from ever being lived. In fact, those two wars were really just the second and third instalments of a European conflict which began with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, although as a good historian, I wouldn’t have too much difficulty linking it to the Crimean War, the Italian Wars of Independence, the various Balkan conflicts and indeed the Napoleonic Wars.
All these wars destroyed people like William. In each war men like him were forced into the armed forces either through compulsion or circumstance, and killed men who were similar to them in every way except nationality. In each of these wars, one of the key causes, if not the single key cause, was nationalistic fervour, often whipped up by demagogues and tyrants who preached the superiority of their nation, and blamed other nations and peoples for conspiracies and plots to hold back their unique destiny. And men like William died in their millions.
The Yugoslavian Wars and the conflicts in Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia show that we European nations with our supposedly shared Christian heritage, have no need of Islamism to bring death and destruction to our doorsteps. The willingness to murder each other in the name of a flag or a tribe simmers under the surface, and unscrupulous men will always pick up the torch of nationalism to start the shooting in their interests.
Yet we in Western Europe have had a remarkable run since 1945. Despite terrorist conflicts (again, driven by nationalism) in Ireland and Spain, no two Western European nations have now gone to war with each other in the seventy-one years since 1945. That is the longest spell of peace in the region since the emergence of nation states.
This is not some sort of strange historical accident. It is in part a direct consequence of the decision after 1945 to link the states of Western Europe both economically and politically in such a way that the only nationalism would be the friendly rivalry of the sports field, or the hard-eyed bargaining of the conference room.
The politicians who drove the creation of what was the European Coal and Steel Community, which became the European Economic Community, and then the European Union, are routinely pilloried in a highly nationalistic British press. Yet they will surely be venerated by history to the same extent that the failed statesmen of Versailles are condemned. They recognised that if the next instalment of European wars were to be truly inconceivable, then the answer was not a return to a Europe of competing and hostile nation states, bombastically declaring their unique exceptionalism, ready to defend their perceived interests with war, and prone to dictatorial Tyrants and Monarchs. Rather we had to bring those countries together, in order to cement democracy across the continent, to recognise our shared interests, our commonalities, and our mutual dependence.
This or this ?
It seems clear that the position of many Brexiters is driven by emotion rather than reason. The Remain camp find that their armoury of facts and figures, experts and Leaders, bounce off the anger and alienation of people who feel hard done to, whether fairly or unfairly, and are being encouraged to blame the “other”, the “foreigner”, the “migrant” or “Europe” for their discontent. Many of those people are being deceived by elitist leaders posturing as voices of the people to whip up an irrational nationalism which would be all too familiar to all previous generations of Europeans. Good God, but some of their arguments hark back with uncanny familiarity to those of 1914: the superiority of the British “race”, our destiny being a global power on the oceans rather than involved in petty European squabbles, the threat from the domineering “Hun” and alien “Johnny Turk”.
So I won’t appeal to reason, as others have done that, and will continue to do that better than I ever could. Rather I’m going to appeal to emotion. Let me appeal to the emotion I felt when I stood in the Peronne Road Cemetery on Friday morning, and looked down on the grave of my great grandfather, William:
William could have known me, but didn’t. The men he lies alongside represent generations of families who never even got the chance to live. This was because they were unfortunate to live at a time when nations emphasised their differences and conflicts, both cultural and economic, both real and imaginary. The decision to bring the proud nations of Europe together in one collaborative body, and to work together in messy compromises for mutual interests and common goals, is almost certainly one very important reason why my children were always going to know their grandfather, and why there’s an excellent chance, if he lives to be 90, that one day, they may lay their own squalling babes on his ancient knee.
If the sacrifice of William, and all those who came before and after him, is to mean anything, then it must surely mean that we learn from his past, rather than risk repeating it.