And when they ask me………….
August 4th 2014
Dear Dad and Uncle Joe,
The Great War started a hundred years ago today, and as I look at the photograph of the two of you together, I can’t help think about you both.
I don’t suppose the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo meant much to you. In 1914, you would have been 15, Dad, and, Joe, you were 17.
When war was declared, I expect Dad and his younger brothers were in County Leitrim, as they were each Summer, saving the hay and enjoying long walks around Lough Allan, by the family home. You may have been working as a clerk by then, uncle Joe, or helping out in the shop in Buccleuch St. Neither of you could have known how the world and your lives were about to change.
It’s hard to look closely at the photograph, but even harder not to.
I think it must have been taken some time in 1917. Joe, you joined the Post Office Rifles in 1916 and were part of the draft in July of that year to replace all those who had been killed at the Somme. You arrived in France on July 11th and were immediately transferred to the London Rifle Brigade, 1/5 Batt, London Regiment, whose original strength had been almost wiped out at Gommecourt on July 1st. I hope some of your mates were transferred with you.
In the picture, you have your Sergeant’s stripes and swagger stick, and you seem comfortable with them. You would hardly have reached Sergeant during your training, so I don’t think this picture was taken on Embarkation leave, rather on Home leave from the Front. Furthermore, the dark eyed, slender, handsome youth of earlier pictures has been replaced by a bulkier, more tested individual. You look as grey as it is possible to look in a sepia toned photograph; I think you have been through at least some of the battles that the LRB fought in 1917, on the Somme, and at Arras and Ypres. Your look is distracted, as if fearing that a steady eyed gaze into the camera may have given too much away.
I’m sure you didn’t tell the family many details, if any, about what you had seen, but I know my dad idolized you as his big brother, and I think he may have guessed at some of what you had been through.
Dad, I think that shows in this picture. You are probably not yet 18, but there you are looking into the camera, and showing fear and uncertainty. You were the most gentle man I have ever known, but, like others, you will be wondering how you will cope, if the ‘call’ comes.
More than that, though, you are afraid for Joe. You have seen many photos like this one, black edged, on sideboards in the houses of friends. You are desperate for a picture with your soldier hero, but appalled by the use to which it might be put. You both know that this might be the last picture of you together: that’s why you were so keen to have it taken, that’s also why your faces betray how difficult it is to be photographed.
You are just joined up – in the uniform of the Scottish Rifles, 5th (Reserve) Battalion. It shows your keenness to emulate Joe, to be in uniform beside him. In the end, a knee injury from football will leave you passed as fit only for Home Service in the last months of the War. Escorting German Prisoners of War from Leith Docks to Edinburgh Castle, you take them up to your family’s flat for a good meal. I used to think this was an example of outrageous Leitrim hospitality, but now I feel you may have had another motive.
On March 28th 1918, just south of Oppy, in northern France, Joe is wounded and captured in a German advance. He’ll spend the rest of the war in the Infirmary at the Friedreichsfeld PoW Camp in Germany. On a postcard home to his parents, which I still have, he writes that he is getting better and hopes to be let out of bed soon, though I suspect that was more to calm them than to give an accurate picture of conditions. I wonder was Dad’s kindness to those Germans performed in the hopes that his big brother was receiving similar treatment in Germany?
Maybe I’m wrong, but this picture seems to capture the moment more deeply than any of the thousands of digital snaps we take unthinkingly today. In the waiting for the set up and in its formality, there must have been far too long for both of you to think about the meaning of the picture, the reasons for its importance. Dad – you look as if you are staring desperately into the future, wondering what is to become of you both.
And it’s impossible not to feel sorrow for you as I recall the future of which you were ignorant.
Uncle Joe, you made it home, and could even return to work – as a clerk in the Bru down in Maritime St in Leith. However, you never really recovered from the wounds and the gas and shortly after a desperate trip to Lourdes, in search, I suppose, of a miracle, you died on May 25th 1923, aged only 26. No time to be married, to be a father, to forge a career, to celebrate the closeness of family as it grew.
Dad, I don’t think you ever got over losing your hero; you certainly didn’t feel you were cut out to play the role of responsible eldest son of the family – you were too quiet and unassuming – and your brothers were too outgoing, sociable and mischievous
You married the lovely Katie and then lost her to Leukaemia when you were both in your mid forties. In late middle age, you met Mum and became a beloved and loving dad, before we lost you when I was only five, and you died on May 25th – Joe’s anniversary.
So I look at the two of you there, faded in photographic brown, trapped by history, caught before the future, and I feel an almost overwhelmingly mixed reaction which involves, love and loss, sorrow and joy, pride and helplessness. And so many questions!
Did you go, Joe, in defence of small countries? The family supported Sinn Fein, did you think there might be a place for Ireland at the peace table? Or was it a sense of decency, in support of your mates? Your men must have relied on you as a Sergeant, how did you deal with the losses – of body and mind? And when you came home, were you proud you had gone, or just angry at the waste of lives?
And, Dad. How did you cope with losing your big brother? The agony of him being missing, the relief of hearing he was ‘safe’, the joy of getting him home, and then the slow realisation that you were losing him after all? His loss must have coloured your whole life. He never saw you marry, never became an uncle, was never there to advise or support you as you passed through life; couldn’t help your Mum or Dad as they got older.
Uncle Joe, you were the age my son is now when you died, and Dad, I am five years older than you were when you died. A sense of loss hangs over that photograph – but also an affirmation of who I am and where my values come from.
I love you as much today as I would have done had you survived to be my uncle, Joe, and if I had had you for more than five years, Dad. You are always in my heart and thoughts, part of who I am. I hope I’ve made you proud – not as a soldier, which, thank God, I was never called to be, but as a man who has tried to be gentle, caring, and alert to others and their needs. I think that’s what both of you would have wanted.
But really, on this anniversary of the start of the Great War, it’s not personal at all.
The real sadness of that picture, and my words, is that there are millions all over the world who could have written them – in Europe and America, the Far East and the Middle East, in India and Pakistan, in Africa, in Australasia, in Ireland, the USA, Viet Nam and Cambodia, Japan, and the Balkans – all with uncles lost and memories unmade.
And tonight, in Gaza, and Israel, families are looking at modern versions of this picture, and putting them carefully away, so that those as yet unborn can ponder over them in a hundred years time. Every picture brings a tear, every memory a wish.
As Einstein said: “The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.”
It seems we never learn.
Love and God Bless,
Your son and nephew,