He isn’t really. The photo by an unidentified Australian war photographer is titled The Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendeale 31 July - 10 November 1917. The soldier isn’t him, but my Grandfather did spend sixteen months at Ypres as a corporal in charge of a machine gun team.
I only heard him talk about his experience once. I was maybe ten, he made me switch off a war film and seeing I was annoyed, tried to explain why he didn’t want it on, ‘Because bodies don’t bounce.’ I still think that every time I see whole bodies thrown away by explosions in the action movies my daughter watches.
That one evening, we sat down and he talked:
About falling asleep while guarding the home end of a listening trench and waking to find an officer holding a pistol in his face saying, ‘By rights I should kill you now’ and thinking, Actually, I don’t care, in fact that would be wonderful, please do.
About the number of times someone else offered to take his turn on watch or manning the gun, only to be killed by an incoming shell or bullet just as my grandfather walked away.
How this happened so often he became convinced he was going to survive whatever he did, though of course there were others who felt this and didn’t live to tell their grandsons.
How after the war he finally got leave, came to England but didn’t get to Belgium to rejoin his regiment quite as quickly as he should have done. As a result he was reduced to private and sent to start what became his career, in the cook house.
Wanting to check my memory of his stories as November 11th approached, I asked my Dad. He said, ‘Your grandfather never ever talked about the war.’ I asked my Dad’s sister, ‘Ha, you know more than me, your Grandad never talked about those things.’
So now, whenever I say hello to my Grandfather through the soldier in the photo in Leeds Art Gallery I have this extra sense of being responsible for his story, and those of my other grandfather, Eric King, one of the first members of the Royal Flying Corps, who often talked about how the absurd antics of early aerial warfare gradually became more deadly.
They both survived. They both lived to see me born on the eleventh of the eleventh a little after eleven o’clock, but sadly not long enough to meet my daughter, also born on Armistice Day, not long after eleven.
A kind of gift
Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa
I had forgotten why I stopped going to gyms
Today I got lost in a wood.
Small lungs shouting
I've never been in, I wasn't there, this isn't my photo, but ...
First ride into the city this year
Out of kilter ...