Let­ters

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - EDITOR REPLIES: What an amaz­ing mem­ory. Thank you for shar­ing it with us Va­lerie!

Your ideas, com­ments and ad­vice

About 40 years af­ter the First World War my fam­ily went on a pic­nic. Most of them went for a long walk, but I had a French test the fol­low­ing day and was hav­ing dif­fi­culty re­mem­ber­ing all of the words. Grandad de­cided to stop with me – he was in a fairly ad­vanced stage of throat cancer, and tired eas­ily. He saw I was strug­gling, and of­fered to help. To my sur­prise he started speak­ing French! I asked when he learned the lan­guage, and he told me that he had picked it up in France dur­ing the First World War where he served as a First Aider.

At this stage I was look­ing out onto the Bed­ford­shire Plain, but Grandad was see­ing bat­tle­fields. He told me about the first Christ­mas and the first gas, and how sol­diers sur­vived by putting urine-soaked hand­ker­chiefs over their mouth and nose (the hand­ker­chiefs were soaked be­cause most of them had wet them­selves in fear). He told me of oc­ca­sions when medics had to use any­one with any med­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence in the front­line First Aid posts. Grandad per­formed on mi­nor wounds, and as­sisted with surgery. The guns were so per­sis­tent that sol­diers held tar­pau­lins over patients’ beds to pre­vent clods of earth rain­ing down into open wounds or op­er­a­tions. They stood with their backs to the beds, to stop them wit­ness­ing the medics’ work and faint­ing.

Grandad de­scribed the mud-filled trenches where you would have to be pulled out of the cloy­ing mud. I also heard about the hor­ror of Hell­fire Cor­ner (the road from Ypres), and the risks that had to be taken to get ca­su­al­ties to more per­ma­nent hos­pi­tals or med­i­cal cen­tres for fur­ther treatment.

I asked what was the most dif­fi­cult thing he had to do. He stopped, took a deep breath and replied that it was drop­ping into a fox­hole and find­ing a dy­ing man in agony, and be­ing un­able to ad­min­is­ter the

‘He had to keep sup­plies for men who could be saved’

pain re­lief he had in his pouch of sup­plies be­cause he had to keep them for men who could be saved if got back to base. He told me it was like play­ing God. I asked if he had ever shot a gun – he replied, “I do not be­lieve in killing my fel­low men, but I did my best to save all that I could and get them back to the front­line doc­tors. I had to as­sess who had a chance of liv­ing and who not – that was hell!”

Life was not all bad – he could play just about any in­stru­ment by ear and sing, and he put on im­promptu per­for­mances with an­other soldier on the front­line. In fact, I think his time in the field may have been the apex of his life de­spite all the trauma and mud. When he re­turned to Eng­land in 1919 he found him­self out of work. He lived in Lu­ton and cy­cled daily to Lon­don to look for a job. It must have been soul-de­stroy­ing.

The men who died have rightly been lauded as he­roes, but those who sur­vived were largely for­got­ten in the re­cent com­mem­o­ra­tions. It takes very brave men (and women) to go into dan­ger time af­ter time.

This is not a his­tor­i­cal text – it is my mem­o­ries of a sunny af­ter­noon’s con­ver­sa­tion. As a last salvo, my grand­fa­ther told me that the men re­turn­ing to Blighty were told not to speak of their ex­pe­ri­ences, and he asked me to keep his con­fi­dences to my­self. He died shortly af­ter, but I kept that prom­ise for years. Va­lerie Clure, by email

Va­lerie’s grand­fa­ther Sergeant Pol­lard dressed as Pier­rot with an­other soldier, and (right) in uni­form

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