Sunday, October 29, 2017

Is Remembrance now just a photo shoot?

Those who know me will know that I am not a jingoist of any kind so I make no apology for returning to the subject of remembering the dead of the first world war.
Visiting Tyne Cot Cemetery this week I was appalled to say the least at the sight of young people climbing about on the central memorial cross just to have their photos taken.
I spoke to one of the guides who told me that the steps on the base of the cross where designed to be used for that.  She said that when King George V visited the cemetery he wanted to stand on the place where so many allied soldiers had stood.
I pointed out that standing on that spot reflecting on the dead of war was a world away from using a memorial as a platform for photographs.
She replied "You are entitled to your opinion."

The first time we visited Tyne Cot, we were almost alone there and it was a moving experience.  Unfortunately this time it was almost impossible to think of it in quite the same way.

Hopefully after 2018 this place will return to being a place of remembrance and not the tourist venue that it appears to be today.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

A hundred years ago

Frederick Feston died nearly one hundred years ago on 25th October 1917. One of the casualties of the Third battle of Ypres that they called Passchendaele.  Not the only one who died that day so it is all too easy to lump them all together as casualties and forget that each of them was an individual: son, father or husband.
Fred Feston is a real man to us even though we never knew him. His daughters never knew him,   the first only a baby and the second born after he died. His widow remarried so his memory gradually faded.
We know him because of our interest in family history and we have been able to piece together his life before the war and the events surrounding his few brief months in the army in France before he disappeared into the mud of Flanders.  No grave-just a name inscribed on a long wall among so many others and an entry in  memorial book.

The Third Battle of Ypres ended at the beginning of November, too late for Fred Feston and for close to three quarters of a million men who died there in less than a month.  In a poem, Sigfried Sassoon put it "I died in Hell, they called it Passchendaele."

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A crowd, a host

To borrow from Wordsworth "I saw a crowd, a host ..........of people"

I was in my early twenties and hadn't seen a crowd like this before. I had seen crowds, of course, London rush hour, football matches and even from in a CND march, but they were moving crowds. This one was standing still and I didn't know what was going on.
This was a Monday and I was on my way to work at the GPO in the City of London from where I lived in Downham, just over ten miles.  I cycled everyday and never had a problem but that day I was completely baulked. Cycling in London back in in the 1950s was not as dangerous as it is today, a lot less traffic then but there was a special hazard of the tramlines which are not there anymore.
I discovered that the reason for the crown  was the Lord Mayors Show and the way to work was completely blocked.  I might just as well have been on the other side of the river as the other side of this mass of people just waiting to see a  hangover from medieval times. But of course a free show always attracts crowds.
The show was always held on the 9th November in those days no matter what day of the week it was and at the time I remember thinking it should have been held on the fifth! They have a bit more sense about it now and it always held on a Saturday, probably because when they changed it people still worked a five day week!
No matter which diversion I tried, down towards Cannon Street, up every side street but was still blocked.   I was still stuck until the parade had left the Guildhall area and some of the barriers had been removed so that I could get through.
Even without the bike I would still not been able to get through.  Have you ever tried to push your way through to the front of a crowd? Over an hour late for work, stopped two hours pay which I could ill afford still being on the lowest pay in the place.
I was never greatly enamoured of pageantry and stuff associated with the aristocracy and the upper classes before, but this confirmed an innate antipathy.  Almost joined the Communist Party!


Saturday, August 12, 2017

First bath for forty years

Went on holiday recently and the bathroom had no shower so I had my first bath for about forty years.
Had forgotten how relaxing it can be wallowing in a tub full of warm water.  But getting in was not easy I hadn't worked out the logistics of sitting down in the bath when my knees refuse to bend sufficiently, however I managed it without creating a tidal wave.

Getting out again also required a great deal of thinking about before it was achieved.  I managed eventually.  Yes it was nice, but I don't think I will do it again.

Difficult to remember when baths transitioned into showering.

There were no showers when I was young and when we were evacuees during the war there were often no  baths either so it was off to the public baths. Slipper baths they were called then and I have no idea why. The towels supplied at the public baths were called huckaback, I have no idea about that either but I do know that they were linen, a bit like a tea towel with no drying capacity so you often walked home almost as wet as when you had got out of the bath.

We had no bath in our first home when we were married so it was like going back to childhood days and the slipper baths. They were still using huckabacks so we took our own towels.


Monday, July 31, 2017

In Flanders field

July 2017 marks the centenary of the Third battle of Ypres  By most definitions one of the bloodiest and controversial of all the dreadful battles of the First world war  By November the battle had gained very little for the allies but had cost the lives of close to a quarter of a million men, with debatably a similar number of German soldiers.

We shall be visiting the Tyne Cot Cemetery this October which is one of the largest of the Ypres salient. It contains the graves of 11,961 British and Commonwealth soldiers including close to 600 Australians, 450 Canadians and close to 200 from New Zealand. There is an astonishing number 8373 graves of men whose names are not known and whose headstone bears the inscription "A soldier of the great war.  Known unto God"   

There were over thirtyfive thousand men who were  never found or identified, most lost in the mud. Their names, including that of our grandfather Frederick Feston, at least are known and  are inscribed on a memorial wall 150 metres long.


War cemeteries like Tyne Cot are never easy to visit. They are not places of possible quiet contemplation like many a village churchyard in England.  The serried rows of stark white headstones appearing to stretch into the distance defy any attempt to view them without emotion even though they record events which occurred a century ago.





Friday, June 9, 2017

A Soldier's Wife

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My Maltese great grandmother Liberatta Xerri was what is now called an army wife.
In 19th century Malta her policeman husband died leaving her to fend for herself and two young children, one of whom was born after her husband had died.
She later married Thomas Anson a private in the Kings Liverpool regiment and went with him ti India leaving her two young daughters in the care of her mother in Malta.
No married quarters, wives shared the barrack rooms with the soldiers with only a blanket draped around the bed space at night.
When the regiment moved between stations it was mostly on foot and the wives and children walked as well.  
During four years in India the regiment covered a thousand miles on foot. No transport except occasionally pregnant wives could get a lift on a baggage cart, but that was actually against regulations.
If you would like to read the story it is on Amazon http://amzn.eu/fPYRKKS

Friday, May 5, 2017

Kindness is alive and well and can be found on a Virgin train.

Arrived at Euston station last night on our way back from Slovenia just too late to catch the fast train to warringon.  Instead of waiting an hour for the next one we decided to catch a slower train but which was leaving shortly.  It was a bad decision as by the time we were on board we realised that the unreserved seats were all taken and the carriages crowded and over full.
After struggling for a while I was finding it difficult to carry the suitcase any further through the train in the hope of a seat.
A young man, say mid thirties, saw our plight and offered to carry our suitcase back through the train to find a seat in the first class compartments  "I'll sort you something out " says he.  He led the way, pushing against the flow of people still trying to work their way forward in the forelorn hope of a nonexistent seat.
Eventually we got to an almost empty first class compartment and took a couple of seats and it was only then that we realised he was a passenger as well, not railway staff.

After the first stop the train conductor came along and we showed our tickets.  He said that we would have to leave the compartment or pay extra fare.  We were still too tired to argue and asked how much extra he wanted for us to remain where we were.  He said that it would be 80 pounds each which was more than we had paid for the return tickets in the first place.

The young man who had brought us along then intervened.  "That is ridiculous.  With all these empty seats why are you insisting that they go back along the train.  If they have to go, then you carry their bag.  I carried it here so I know how difficult I was for them."  The cunductor replied that their where now plenty of seats. The young man responded, "Well I have a reserved seat in the first carriage, before they move, perhaps you could go through to the front to see if my seat is unoccupied,"
There was just a little bit of edge coming into the conversation when another voice joined in.  A younger man seating with a female companion called out "I will pay for them".  He came forward with his wallet in his hand and " I can't believe that you are even thinking of asking this couple to move knowing how crowded the train is.  I saw haw this chap was helping them and it restores some of my faith in human nature.  So I will pay for all three."

I am normally a sentimental bloke but all this moved me to tears.

We did not hear how this ended.  It appeared that the conductor relented and moved on down the train without taking any money, but the magnificent gesture had been made.

No doubt the ticket collector has his job to do, but Virgin trains collect enough revenue to allow their staff some discretion on overcrowded trains.

We allowed our Samaritans to go without thanking them properly, but they know who they are and I think they know how grateful we were, not just for the assistance but for the generosity of spirit which inspired the gestures.