Friday book: Unheard witnesses of war

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
VETERANS: THE LAST SURVIVORS

OF THE GREAT WAR

BY RICHARD VAN EMDEN AND STEVE HUMPHRIES,

LEO COOPER, pounds 16.95

"AGE SHALL not weary them / nor the years condemn" was the traditional consolation for the doomed youth of a war that ended 80 years ago this week. But what of those who lived on, and still do, into their late nineties and early centuries to tell their stories? In this skilful collection, which accompanies a BBC1 series that continues this Sunday, Richard van Emden and Steve Humphries have tapped our fascination with their dual survival.

First, the veterans lived through a military nightmare that left so many of their contemporaries dead, then into to an extended old age so far beyond the Biblical three score years and ten that they appear now as witnesses almost beyond time.

Tracked down outside the usual veterans' networks, many of the subjects echo 101-year-old George Louth, who says: "I blanked out the war and only once spoke about it from 1918 to 1990." The oral history that now emerges has a fresh-corked immediacy, less prone to the reworking that attends the repeated retelling of memories. Robert Burns, born 1895, still feels the impact of the Kitchener poster on him as an 18-year-old in Glasgow. "No matter where you went it seemed to be pointing at you personally," he says.

Elsewhere spare, matter-of-fact details work, like those in an Alan Bennett monologue, to revivify the grotesqueries of the Western Front. He racalls: "The kilts we wore were pleated and the lice got into the pleats, hundreds of them... When you dug a hole, you put the kilt in and covered it over with the soil.

"If you left it for a couple of hours... you'd find nearly all the lice gone. The other insects had eaten the lice".

The book's power also comes from reaching parts of First World War testimony that others have not - the memories of women as Home Front or battle-line nurses, as munitions workers, or shelled as children in Hartlepool by German battle cruisers in December 1914. Other voices conjure up an attack inside a tank: "a thick haze of petrol and gas and cordite fumes ... eight men cooped up with no air... a sudden drop was sickening... we were full of bruises".

Or, during a hospital recovery: "The gas began burning its way out of my chest, forcing bits of rib through the skin ... an open wound which the doctors had constantly to syringe".

Then there is the surreal encounter of a Tommy PoW with a German officer, who asks in the King's English: "Where are you from?" "London." "So am I. I was at college there, but they brought me home - now I'm in this lot."

Veterans also confirms a sense of humanity that had its origins in 1914- 18, and was not just a product of postwar disillusion. Ninety-year-old Emma Cusson's mother was riddled with shrapnel from the Hartlepool bombardment. But when a Zeppelin was downed - "and dad said to my mum, `Come and have a look at this,' - she said, `No. I couldn't. They're somebody's lads aren't they?'"

Andrew Downie's memories of a young German prisoner breaks out an intense heartache, still tender and raw after 80 years: "Only 16, his hip had been shot away... The fellows were giving him chocolate... There was an atmosphere of love, he wasn't the enemy then, he was a mother's son... Poor little soul, he died on the way down."

Humphries and Emden describe their interviewees as "privileged and amused to have survived for so long". It is only in the more openly demonstrative climate of recent years that many of them have lifted the curtain on their Great War emotions. This links with our need to make sense of what Eric Hobsbawm has called the short 20th century, framed at both ends by tragedies in Sarajevo.

We see in that 1914-18 experience both an intensity and innocence that we have lost, and a black-humoured knowingness that we all now share.

As we question our personal and national identities in a postmodern culture where so much of life is in inverted commas, the veterans of this book act as Janus-faced mediums between two worlds. They do justice to the memory of comrades, but some are able also to see their own ghosts. Here is Norman Collins, still mystically close to his Lewis-gunner pal (a VC winner killed in 1917) after looking at his gravestone: "I have a lovely picture and there I am standing looking down, and Sergeant Meikie is young bones, of course, still young bones, and there I am, nearly a hundred, standing on top - very brittle bones with plenty of pain in them. Who had the better life?"

Collins and his fellow witnesses can stand at ease. They have been neither wearied nor condemned by the 80 years - rather, like Ezekiel in the Old Testament, their words have brought the plain full of dry bones to life.

The reviewer, MP for Blackpool South, is a former editor of `History Today'

Comments