The First World War in the words of the men who fought it: "Everything was mud and water and continuous shelling. Hell with the lid off"
Ten years ago, Max Arthur interviewed the last 21 British veterans of the Great War, the oldest of which was 109. Nearly all the men were talking about their experiences for the first time
Saturday 19 July 2014
Ten years ago, I had the remarkable pleasure of interviewing the last 21 British veterans of the First World War. Youngest at the time was 104, and the oldest 109. They have passed away now and unlike so many of their friends, they now rest in British soil. The bulk of the men had experiences of war that changed them forever. They had all been born during the reign of Queen Victoria, so I asked about their childhood experiences and wanted to find out what their life was like after the Great War.
They seldom, if ever, talked about the war, for fear of contaminating those close to them. This meant that nearly all the veterans I interviewed were telling me of their experiences for the first time.
I particularly remember one man who had gone over the top at Arras with the East Surrey Regiment kicking a football ahead of him before a bullet penetrated his helmet and he was left for dead. Fortunately, a stretcher bearer spotted a slight movement and he was saved. Listening to his story was his 86-year-old son who had never heard his father talk of the war.
This interview was conducted with him lying prone in his bed. I made every effort to get him to sit up for a photograph but he complained of pain, so I simply carried on listening. At the end of the interview he smiled, sat up straight, pulled back the blanket and jumped out of bed asking me if I'd like a cup of tea! This cussedness and wry humour had enriched his life and he wasn't going to change that for a stranger wanting his memories.
The most difficult of all the veterans was Alfred Finnigan. He had not been told by his carer that we were coming. Surrounded by 42 dogs and sitting in a dark corner, he was extremely upset about being interviewed. Expletives were flying, so I interrupted his tirade with, "I don't think your father would be very proud of you at this moment, Mr Finnigan". To which he replied: "My father was a bastard – it was because of him I went into the Army". With that, I switched on the tape recorder and, for the next hour and a half, heard his extraordinary story of his time on the Somme and at Passchendaele.
All these men were united in the common belief of the utter futility of war. They had all had luck on their side, and with bloody-mindedness and humour had got through. The one line I remember from all those remarkable men came from John Oborne. I asked him if he had had lice while in the trenches. With a wry smile he replied, "No, no, no – they had me".
'Last Post: The Final Word From Our First World War Soldiers', by Max Arthur, is out now (Orion Books). Order it online here
'A History of the First World War in 100 Moments' can be seen at independent.co.uk/greatwar
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