The search for my father

Robert Fisk never liked his father. But there was one astonishing story for which he admired him. After Bill Fisk's death, his son set out to discover whether it was true
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHEN I was a very small boy, my father would take me on his knee and place one of my fingers on a very small dent in his forehead. Running from it was a thin, old scar. "That's where the Chink got me with the knife," he'd say. And there would follow an odd story about how Bill Fisk had to solve a problem with a Chinese man during the First World War and how after he was attacked he shot dead his assailant with a revolver. "My Dad shot a Chinese man," I used to tell my friends at school. I could never explain why.

My father had a strange relationship with the 1914-18 war. He rarely wanted to talk about his own brief participation in the conflict, but all his life he read every book on the subject. He read the poems of Wilfred Owen - who, like my father, came from Birkenhead - and he studied every official history of the Western Front. I can still remember his gasps of horror as he was reading the first critical biography of Earl Haig and realised that a man he had once regarded with veneration was a proven liar. In a nursing home where he was recovering from cancer in the mid- Eighties, I asked him to recall his own memories of the trenches. "All it was, fellah, was a great, terrible waste."

My father called me "fellah" from the first day he saw me in my cot. He had been reading PC Wren's saga of the French Foreign Legion, Beau Geste, in which, when one of the heroes bravely suffers a wound in silence, his comrade calls him "stout fellah". Never realising that "fellah" is an Arabic word for a peasant or farmer, Bill always addressed me as "fellah" or "the fellah" - a little ironic since I would be spending almost half my life in the Arab world.

Indeed, I was in Beirut when Bill Fisk died in 1992 at the age of 93, unafraid of death but an increasingly angry and bitter man. He had been loyal and faithful to my mother, Peggy - his second wife - and he never lied or cheated anyone. He paid his bills on time. He was for about 30 years Borough Treasurer of Maidstone. He was a patriot. In 1940, he unhesitatingly agreed to a request from MI6 to form a resistance cell in Kent when it seemed likely that German troops would invade south-eastern England. Had they come, of course, he would have been shot as a saboteur. For years, Karsh's great photograph of Churchill making his 1940 "Blood, sweat and tears" broadcast loomed over our sitting-room in Maidstone - until, after my father's death, Peggy mercifully replaced it with a gentle watercolour of the River Medway.

Unfortunately, there were two sides to Bill Fisk. While he was loyal to my mother, he was also a bully. He would check her weekly housekeeping expenses as she waited in fear at his side for a word of criticism. If I interrupted him, he would strike me hard on the hand. And his patriotism could quickly turn racist. In later years, and to my increasing fury, he would call black people "niggers" and when I argued with him he would turn angrily upon me. "How dare you tell me what to say?" he'd shout, while Peggy stood wringing her hands in the doorway. "Nigger means black doesn't it? Yes, I'm a racist, and proud of it. I am proud to be English."

My mother would try to soften his language and would sometimes end up crying. At the age of nine, I was sent away to boarding school. I hated it - its violence as well as its class distinctions - and pleaded with my father for weeks, for months, for years, to take me away. My mother appealed to him too. In vain. Boarding school would enable me to stand up for myself, he told me. I was to be a stout fellah. His pride when I passed exams was cancelled out by his ferocity when confronted by a son who would not obey him. My clothes, my ties, my shoes were all to be chosen by him. Years later, when I told him I was sick of hearing his racist abuse - he had taken to cursing the Irish - he threw a table knife at me. My mother once told me that Bill had punched a council official on the jaw when he thought the employee was making a pass at her. Only after Peggy's death did my aunt tell me that it was the Lord Mayor of Maidstone whom father laid out.

I was usually an obedient child. My father was for me - as fathers are for all young children - a protector, as well as a potential tyrant. I liked him when he was self-effacing. I tried to soften his temper by calling him "King Billy", which somehow satirised his dominating personality. And when he called himself "King Billy" - acknowledging his flaws with self-deprecation - he became an ordinary human. He taught me to love books and history, and from an early age I learned of Drake and Nelson, of Harold of England and of the Indian Mutiny. His choice of literature could range from Collins' children's history of England to the awful GA Henty. By the time I was sent to boarding school, I knew about the assassination of an archduke at Sarajevo that had started the First World War and I knew that the Versailles Treaty of 1919 brought an end to the First World War but failed to prevent a second. So it was that at the age of 10, "the fellah" was taken on his first foreign holiday - to France, and to those battlefields that still haunted my father's mind.

When my mother died five months ago, I discovered the little scrapbook she had compiled of this 1956 holiday, a cheap album with a green fake leather cover in which she had Sellotaped a series of small black-and- white snapshots; Bill and Robert standing by our car - an Austin of England, it was called, and I can imagine why my father chose it - outside Dover Marine station, waiting for the old British Railways boat, the Shepperton Ferry, to take us to Boulogne; Robert in his school pullover sitting beside Bill, the car boot open and a paraffin stove hissing beside us; Robert loco-spotting French trains; and Bill and Peggy together by the car, slightly out of focus, a picture that must have been taken by me.

But it was clear where my father's mind was. "Through Montreuil, Hesdin, St Pol, Arras," Peggy wrote in the album as she mapped our journey, "to - Louvencourt." And beside the word "Louvencourt" was a photograph of a road, framed by tall trees, with on the far side a barn with a sagging roof. I knew what this was. My father spoke of it many times later; he had found the very house on the Somme in which he slept on 11 November 1918, the last day of the First World War. On our 1956 holiday, my father had been too shy to knock on the door. Another snapshot shows him standing before a memorial of 1914-18 to the French dead from Louvencourt. He is wearing the tie he always wore, at work and on holiday for 72 years: the navy-blue and maroon tie of the King's Liverpool Regiment.

He was wearing that tie one night in our hotel in Beauvais, waiting for my mother to join him at the bar. I had been suffering from food poisoning and Peggy had stayed with me until my father suddenly opened my bedroom door and said to her: "I want to speak to you - now." I listened at the thin wall that partitioned my room from theirs. "How dare you leave me waiting like that? How dare you?" he kept asking her. Then I heard Peggy weeping. And my father said: "Well, we'll say no more about it." He used that same phrase many times to me in later years. Then he would refuse to talk to me for weeks afterwards as punishment for some real or imagined offence. He didn't talk to Peggy for several days after he was kept waiting at the hotel bar. In the holiday scrapbook, we are always smiling. There were other holidays and other snapshots later, always through the battlefields of what he called the Great War. We went to Ypres many times. And to Verdun. By then, my mother was taking early colour stock home-movie film. And in those pictures, too, we were always smiling.

Although Bill was reluctant to speak of his war, I had several times pestered him to tell a few stories. He had, it turned out, been bitten by a rat in the trenches in 1918. He had been billeted for several nights in Amiens Cathedral, its roof blown off by German shellfire - he remembered staring up at the stars as medieval gargoyles stared back at him. He had once shown me a photograph he had taken of the Western Front, a tiny, inch-long picture of muck and dead trees. My father had - against every military rule - taken a camera to the war in 1918. It sounded quite unlike the Bill I knew, who was usually as subservient to authority as he was jealous of his power in his home. He didn't say much about the war in the trenches - he had only arrived in August 1918 - but when, in 1976, I was leaving to cover the Lebanese civil war for the Times, Bill turned to me and said: "Remember, fellah, it's not the shells you have to worry about - it's the snipers you have to watch out for." Advice from the trenches of the First World War. And he was right.

Not long before he died, he told me of his first marriage - it had been a secret from me until I discovered in Maidstone cemetery one day, by chance, his first wife's grave. She had been a childhood sweetheart but when he had married her she had not returned his love, not even on the first night of their marriage. She died during the Second World War, which is how he came in 1946 to marry Peggy. She was 25. He was 46.

But there was another story he told me, an astonishing one, quite out of character. At the very end of the war in 1918, he said, he had been ordered to command a firing party to execute a soldier. He had refused. Then, with the war over, the army punished him by forcing him to help transport the corpses left lying on the front lines for burial in the great British cemeteries. My father's insubordination sounded unlike him. But I admired him enormously for it. Indeed, as the years went by, I came to the conclusion that my father's refusal to kill another man was the only thing he did in his life which I would also have done.

For my 28th birthday, he bought me William Moore's The Thin Yellow Line, one of the first histories of capital punishment on the Western Front. My mother told me that Bill had read the book from beginning to end in total silence. He had wanted me to read of the fate of the 314 men executed by the British in the Great War. It seemed to prey on his mind. Not long before he died, I asked him if he knew the identity of the doomed soldier he refused to shoot. He was an Australian, my father replied, who had got drunk and then murdered a gendarme. Someone else had commanded the firing squad.

That was all. I once asked Peggy to talk to my father about the war, to interview him as if she were a journalist, to find out about this missing segment of his life. She promised that she would. Yet on his death in 1992, all I found were nine short pages of notes in his own handwriting - in pencil - about the history of his family. "Born 1899 at 'Stone House', Leasowe, Wirral, Cheshire," it said. "Father, Master Mariner Born 1868. Mother, Market Gardner's [sic] daughter, born 1869. Earliest record [of the Fisks] Danish professor, came to England 1737. [I] attended Council School. Won Scholarship to High School. Father unable to support me there, so no alternative but to leave school and compete for work in Borough Treasurer's Department. Examination (25 entrants) for 6 shillings per week - was successful and commenced two weeks before my 14th birthday in 1913." So no wonder my schooling was so important to Bill.

It would be another six years before I learned more. For when my mother lay dying last year, I found in the roof of her home at Maidstone a tin box of the kind that families sent to soldiers in the Great War with soap and shaving brushes. On the front, the words "Parfumery Chiyotsubaki" were stamped above a painting of a young, half-smiling woman with roses in her hair. Inside the box were dozens of photographs from the 1914-18 war. Some were postcard-sized pictures of Bill's long-dead army friends in the uniform of the King's Liverpool Regiment, all of them with the solemn faces of doomed youth. Others had been taken by Bill with his illegal camera. One I had seen before - the picture of the shattered countryside of the Western Front. "North of Arras 1918," it said on the back. Another showed a young of- ficer on horseback with the words "Self on Whitesocks near Hazebruck" written on the back. There was a French money coupon and a photograph of 50 young soldiers with my father, hatless, sitting at the front, hob- nailed boots towards the camera. A dramatic snapshot showed the 4th Battalion of the King's Liverpool Regiment on parade in driving snow at Douai in northern France, bayonets fixed in the blizzard.

And there was a larger photograph of 2nd Lieutenant Bill Fisk, leaning against the windowsill of a house in Arras, dated August 1918. He was a tall, handsome man, a shock of dark hair, deep-set eyes, protruding nose, a faint smile on his face, right-hand self-consciously pushed into his trouser pocket, the horse rampant insignia of the regiment on his lapel. He looked like the young Burt Lancaster. Aside from the handsome appearance, I had to admit he looked a little like me.

Another picture showed him in an open-top car with a man and a woman. And a snapshot showed him in the French countryside, in civilian clothes but still in his Great War puttees, the cloth wraps which British troops wore around their legs to prevent trench water from pouring into their boots. Behind him, hanging on a branch, was a woman's hat. Had there been a wartime love affair? He never said and my mother never spoke anything of it. When Bill was in France, she was not even born.

The tin of photographs had been stored in a shoebox in the roof. But in my mother's desk downstairs I found pages of notes in her handwriting. It was the interview with my father she had promised to make at least a decade earlier. Bill had spoken more freely to her. He describes his excitement at being posted to France - an amazing reaction for a man whose friends from Liverpool had already died at Ypres - and the thrill of wearing his first officer's uniform. He received a grant of pounds 50 and "scrounged" a Smith & Wesson revolver. "I thought I was a Field Marshal," he told my mother. He was sent to France in August of 1918. "When I first got to France, there were thousands of Chinese there," he said. "They were brought there to repair the roads from shell holes, and they had been robbing a French provision train, and we were the next battalion ... I was a junior subaltern at that time." Bill arrived at the Chinese encampment near Arras to find a group of huts surrounded by barbed wire.

"When I got there they wouldn't let us in ... but they would let me in [alone]. I said to this Chinese man who could speak English: 'I've been sent to make enquiries about a French supply train [with] my platoon of 30 men.' [He said] 'You can come in, but not your men' - which I didn't think much of. I didn't like that 'not your men' a little bit. But I went in and sat at a table and there were Chinks all round, and this fellow aimed a knife at my forehead between my eyes. I was trying to read something, leaning forward, when I felt this fellow opposite me moving ... he would have got me in the back of the neck if I hadn't moved. Well, I shot him dead and made for the door, and ran like hell - they were streaming after me and the Sarge that was in charge of these 30 men opened fire - I don't know how many of the Chinks they killed. It's a good job they did."

Many of the incidents Bill related to Peggy were told in an off-hand manner. The rat had bitten him on the chest just outside Arras - one of thousands that swarmed around the lines. "Their teeth must have been poisonous because they were eating casualties and dead men [which] had ... been laying out for a week or more in the sun ... The hospital at Amiens was staffed by German prisoners and that was where a German prisoner that [sic] was looking after me ... gave me a shell case and he had inscribed on it a drawing of the regimental battalion horse, [my] name and rank and I took it home." Then he added in reference to me that "the lad would have liked that, I'm sure he would". For years the shell case sat on his mother's mantelpiece in Birkenhead but then disappeared, long before I was born.

The armistice of November 1918 was only a ceasefire and tens of thousands of British troops stayed on in the filth of the front lines in case hostilities with the Germans resumed. At Dover and Folkestone, thousands of British troops refused to board the boats to France in January 1919, but my father volunteered to serve an extra year. He told my mother of his long horse rides with his colonel through the broken cities of northern France as the victorious powers dismembered the old empires of Europe at Versailles. One of his horses was blind in one eye and rode in circles, dumping him in a French railway yard. He was sent to Cologne as part of the army of occupation and to Le Havre to oversee the departure of the last British fighting troops from France.

But still there was so little on the war itself, the agony of the trenches in which I knew he had spent weeks. And nothing of the execution party he said he had refused to command. The last page of my mother's notes broke off in mid-sentence. Had Bill destroyed the rest? My family was now gone, and I had inherited little of my father's memories - save for those recollections to my mother and the cache of little snapshots. But there was one other way in which I could seek the missing months of my father's life. I walked into the Public Record Office at Kew and asked for Bill's personal war service file - along with the war diaries of his two battalions - the 12th and 4th King's Liverpool Regiment.

I have to admit to a slight tingle in the back of my hands when the tiny reader's computer bleeped and I walked to the desk where a middle-aged lady handed me file number WO374/24476. The cover read "2nd Lt Wm Fisk". But almost at once, my heart fell. Printed on the same cover were the words "weeded in 1936" and "weeded in 1955." A file that might have contained 50 or 60 pages was left with scarcely 20.

His commission as an officer was intact, his civilian status listed as "assistant book- keeper". The War Office questionnaire even asked if Bill was "of pure European descent". "Yes," Bill had replied. I don't suppose he had much trouble with that one. Under "power of command," an officer had written: "V fair. He only needs experience." Bill's dates of posting to France, his transfer to his post- war battalion and his final embarkation by boat from Boulogne back to Liverpool just before Christmas of 1919 were all there. But nothing more. What had been taken out of the files? Reference to a refusal to command an execution perhaps? A small massacre of Chinese workers?

A separate PRO file on the Chinese showed that there were 187,000 of them in France by 1918, paid by the War Department, many of them lured away from their homeland by promises that they would not be in the firing line - a promise that was a lie. Literature in the files refers to them as coolies, stating that they should be kept away from Europeans. At least ten were executed for murder, several of them not even given the dignity of a name - only a number - when they were shot at dawn by British troops. The war diary of a one British regiment did make a single intriguing reference to Chinese involvement in the looting of "French provisions trains".

Then the war diaries of the King's Liverpool Regiment arrived from the archives. And the pages of the 12th Battalion's history from August 1918 were eerily familiar. There were brief, hurried reports of "hostile shelling" and "enemy gas shells causing four OR (other rank) casualties." On 22 August, there was a raid towards German trenches which secured two prisoners. "Most of the enemy's concrete emplacements were destroyed by our artillery fire." On 1 November, the battalion was in billets at rue St Druon in Cambrai.

I knew my father had been in Cambrai - he had told me it was burning when he entered it - but what caught my attention was the handwriting. It was identical to the handwriting on the back of the snapshots I had found in the loft of my mother's home. Even the little squiggle that Bill used to put under his capital "D"s were there. I found them under the "D" of Douai. Bill Fisk must have been the 2nd lieutenant tasked to write the Battalion diary in 1918. Sometimes the entries were only a few words in length, a remark about the "inclement weather" - all his life, my father used the word "inclement", much to my amusement - and then, under the date 10-11 November, the following: "At 07.30 11th instant message from XVII Corps received via Bde [Brigade] that Hostilities will cease at 11.00 today."

Then, later, "Billets in Louvencourt reached at 18.00 hours." My father had arrived at the barn-like cabin that was to be his home until the end of the following January. I turned again to the notes my mother had taken from him before he died. "There was a chateau [at Louvencourt]," he said. "And most of the officers were billeted in the chateau because the occupants had gone and the junior officers were put in these scruffy little farm houses. I found myself in a derelict cottage and to get into my room, I had to go through a room where an old 'biddy' was in bed. Every morning, I had to go through her room ... she was always sitting in bed smoking a pipe."

How much further could I go in my search for Bill's life amid those gas attacks and shellings and raids mentioned in the war diaries - across the very same no man's land that was portrayed so vividly in the tiny snapshot I had inherited from my father? In the later war diaries, I did find an intriguing reference that suggested Bill's memory for dates had played tricks on him. In the 4th Battalion records is the following: "DUISONS 11 June 1919. 2 companies quelled trouble at Chinese Compound Arras ... 1 officer and platoon remained as guard." I suspect that this is the official, censored version of the shooting at the Chinese compound, that the "officer" is my father. Only the date was 1919, not 1918. My father had got the year wrong.

But he had remembered Louvencourt with great vividness. And one freezing day last month, the countryside etched by snow banks and the fields of white military cemeteries, I travelled the little road I had taken with my parents more than 40 years ago, back to Louvencourt on the Somme. I had the snapshot from the family scrapbook with me, which showed the house where Bill was billeted. I'm not sure what I expected to find there. Someone who remembered him? Unlikely. He left Louvencourt almost exactly 80 years ago. Some clue, perhaps, as to how the young, free-spirited man in the 1918 photograph could have turned into the man I remember in old age, threatening to strike even Peggy when she began to suffer the first effects of Parkinson's disease, who had grieved her so much that she contentedly watched him go into a nursing home, never visited him there and refused to attend his funeral.

I found the house in Louvencourt, the roof still bent but the wall prettified with new windows and shutters. Unlike Bill in 1956, I knocked on the door. An old French lady answered. She was born in 1920 - the same year as Peggy - and could not have known Bill. But she could just remember her very elderly grandmother - my father's "old biddy" - who lived in the house. There was an old, patterned tile floor in the living-room and it must have been there for a hundred years. Bill Fisk in his hob-nailed boots and puttees would have walked through here. At the end of the cold street, past the church, I found the chateau, half in ruins behind a yellow and red brick wall, and I met the oldest man in the village - he had three front teeth left - who did remember the English soldiers here. Yes, the officers had lived in the chateau. His home had been the infirmary for the battalion. He was six at the time. The English soldiers used to give him chocolates. Maybe, I thought, that's why he lost his teeth.

I walked back up the road. Opposite the house where my father had spent those cold nights I found a very small British war cemetery. And two of the graves in it were those of men who were shot at dawn by firing squad. Private Harry MacDonald of the 12th West Yorks - the father of three children - was executed here for desertion on 4 November 1916. Rifleman F M Barratt of the 7th King's Royal Rifle Corps was shot for desertion on 10 July 1917. Their graves are scarcely 20 metres from the window of the room in which 2nd Lieutenant Bill Fisk lived. Did he know who they were? Had their graves, so near to him, spoken to his conscience when he was asked to command a firing party?

From Paris, I called up the Australian archivist in charge of war records in Canberra. No soldiers from Australian regiments were executed in the First World War, he said. The Australians, it seems, didn't want Haig's men shooting their boys at dawn. But when the war ended, two Australians were under sentence of death, one of them for killing a French civilian. The archivist doubted if this was the man Bill spoke of, but could not be sure. And - it would have pleased my father - the condemned man's life was subsequently spared.

Bill Fisk was born 100 years ago this year but still remains an enigma for me. Was the French woman with whom he picnicked a girl who might have made his life happy, who might have prevented him returning on the Boulogne boat to Liverpool 80 years ago, to his life of drudgery in the treasurer's office and his first, loveless marriage? Was she, perhaps, the real reason why he volunteered to stay on in France after the war? When he died, I found two tickets to the Longchamps races for 1919. I had a shrewd idea whom his companion may have been. "Throw them away," Peggy had snapped. She didn't like the thought that Bill had kept the tickets all those years.

The Great War destroyed the lives of the survivors as well as the dead. By chance, in the same Louvencourt cemetery lies the grave of Roland Leighton, the young soldier whose grief-stricken fiancee, Vera Brittain, was to write Testament of Youth, that literary monument to human loss. Perhaps the war gave my father the opportunity to exercise his freedom in a way he never experienced again, an independence that society cruelly betrayed. His medals, which I inherited last year, include a Defence medal for 1940, an MBE and an OBE for post-war National Savings work, and two medals from the Great War. On the back of one - the last date representing the Treaty of Versailles - is written in gold, "The Great War For Civilisation 1914-1919."

In Peggy's last hours, one of her nurses told me that squirrels had got into the loft and destroyed some family photographs. I climbed into the roof to find that, although a few old pictures were missing, the tin box containing my father's Great War snapshots was safe. But as I turned to leave, I caught my head a tremendous blow on a roofbeam. Blood poured down my face and I re- member thinking that it was Bill's fault. I remember cursing his name. I had scarcely cleaned the wound when, two hours later, my mother died. And in the weeks that followed, a strange thing happened; a scar and a small dent formed on my forehead - identical to the scar my father bore from the Chinese man's knife.

From the after-life, Bill had tried to make amends. Amid the coldness I still feel towards him, I cannot bring myself to ignore the letter he left for me, to be read after his death. "My dear Fellah," it begins,

"I just want to say two things to you old boy. First - thank you for bringing such love, joy and pride to Mum and me. We are, indeed, most fortunate parents. Second - I know you will take the greatest possible care of Mum, who is the kindest and best woman in the world, as you know, and who has given me the happiest period of my life with her continuous and never failing love. With a father's affection - King Billy."

Robert Fisk is a war reporter and Middle East correspondent for the Independent. His return to his father's First World War battlefields will be featured in Radio 4's Sunday programme 'Sentimental Journey' in April