1914 and all that

5 August 2014

Yesterday was a chance for people to remember relatives who died in the 1914-1918 conflict, often the only record of their existence being grainy old portraits from a grandmother’s mantelpiece and a gravestone in France. I have no idea what my grandfather did, although he was old enough to be fighting by the end of the war; he was a journalist too so he probably just sat behind a typewriter encouraging others to fight and making stuff up.

I do remember as a child hearing about how my great-uncle, Charles Leaf, had suffered terrible shellshock in the trenches. But I only recently read my grandmother’s memoirs, which were published in 1958, and which end in July 1914. Then, aged 14, the childhood world she knew disappeared; going for a walk with her mother and brother Charles in the Surrey countryside, they were stopped by a young motorcyclist asking where the nearest recruitment centre was. She wrote:

When the stranger had departed in a roar of dust, Charlie stood gazing after him; then, as we turned towards home, he blurted out that he himself must go immediately to Camberley because he was determined to enlist.

She recalls no joy or excitement on his part, nor pride in her mother, who only wished for him to wait. Her father, the banker and classicist Walter Leaf, ‘had come down from London exhausted’ and ‘shaken by the war’s first impact on his friends’ as they prepared for the conflict that was looming.

He tried, however, very gently, to explain to us what war might eventually mean to countless families like ours. And then, suddenly, as he was helping us to share his wider vision, his voice broke, and I realized that he was crying.

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She added:

It came to me in a flash of light that my father could see further, feel deeper, than the rest of us. He was crying partly, it is true, for the end of the world that he had known through sixty years; but he was also profoundly stirred by his knowledge that a new world, full of potential opportunities as well as dangers, was being born.

Looking back from 2014, there seem to be far more dangers than opportunities; but my grandmother was very much a woman of the 1920s, part of the first year to get degrees at Cambridge, so maybe she saw something positive in the new world. (Her husband was from a slightly less gentrified background, and I wonder to what extent the feminism of the 1920s was driven by women having to marry below their station, with so many men, and in particular upper-class men, killed in Flanders.)

My grandmother’s memoirs were published before The Donkeys and Oh! What a Lovely War and later Blackadder changed the way we saw the conflict. Perhaps it was written with 40 years hindsight or distortion of memory, but she certainly didn’t recall sheep marching off cheerfully to a war that would be over by Christmas; her father saw it as a disaster, a failure by politicians.

My grandmother’s brother survived the war, and despite the shellshock must have got on with his life, as he went on to Cambridge, married, had three children, and even won gold at sailing at the 1936 Olympics. He re-enlisted in 1939. His elder son was killed fighting the Nazis; his daughter was a pioneering female pilot who died a few weeks ago.

And to think we went from that to Big Brother in just two generations.

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Show comments
  • Liz

    There wasn’t much opportunity to remember the dead civilian female and child relatives who were killed, starved, raped, bombed out by all the soldiers everyone was fawning over. Despite the fact that there were twice as many of them.

  • Spectre

    Heartbreaking conclusion, and one not unconnected to the events of WW1.

  • Earthenware

    “…to think we went from that to Big Brother in just two generations”

    I would like to think that today’s generation would take a healthier attitude to any expectation from politicians that they should go and fight in a pointless war that had nothing to do with Britain with a resounding “bugger off”.

    The difference of course is that today’s youngsters have access to multiple sources of information and the establishment’s ability to control thought through propaganda is diminishing. Today, if we were confronted by nonsense about bayoneted babies or crucified Canadians it would be a simple matter to determine that they were untrue.

    I believe that if the brave young men of 1914-18 had access to the same level of information that we have today, they would have dismissed the press reports and the Government’s intrigues and we would have saved a generation from slaughter.

    That can only be a good – no, wonderful – thing.

  • Ricky Strong

    “There is a forgotten, nay almost forbidden word, which means more to me than any other. That word is England”. Sir W Churchill

    The transformation over those two generations was brought about because those who profess to govern over us would distance themselves from the above quote and ridicule any man or woman who sympathised with it.

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