My father fought in both world wars; he was sixty when I was born. I have been reading through the scrap books my mother kept when she was his PA and have found some wonderful material painting a vivid picture of that time.
One particular piece was the text of a speech my father delivered in Halifax in Salute the Soldier Week seeking to encourage more people to put their money in National Savings in order to help meet the ever increasing monetary cost of the war. One sentence in this speech struck me very hard and it was this:
‘War in itself is essentially wasteful and if we are to be victorious we must waste more than the enemy. This is the cost of war.’
My father’s role was to supply the troops with all they needed and so this seems all the more odd; a grim acceptance of a reality.
My father spoke very little about his experiences in the Great War although I recall him saying that in the horror of the Somme quite by chance he met up with his brother. My father was a young officer in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and my uncle in the Royal Engineers. I wonder what they may have said to each other? Their father had died in 1906 and their mother was alone in England working as a housekeeper at the Conservative Club in St James’ Street, London.
I remember my uncle telling me with incredulity how on that 4th of August 1914 he and very many other young men had rejoiced in the streets at the prospect of standing up for King and country. The Somme campaign was some two years later. The two Williams boys, as their mother still regarded them, were certainly no longer boys. They had witnessed barbarism on a monumental scale. So, would the conversation have been about the horrors, or, perhaps, on an altogether more banal level. Concern for mother and how she must be worrying, but then perhaps the conversation that any two brothers might have, the telling of stories, a joke or two, then a glass or two. It can only be conjecture. What it tells me though is that during all the horror, somehow life did go on. People thought ordinary thoughts, did ordinary things, had ordinary conversations.
Yet some things stick. I know my father had nightmares right up until his death. I can’t help feeling that the inherent wastefulness of men and material must have struck him hard in the trenches and then followed him as he strove to do his job and so work for victory against Nazism, but always in the knowledge of the awful waste this entailed.