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