Miles Kington: What didn't you do in the war, Grandad?

'The officers debriefed him on life as a German soldier, but he couldn't remember much beyond the catering'
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The Independent Online

My father never talked about his father at all. I asked him why, once.

"Because nobody's ever asked me about him, of course," he said, looking surprised.

"Well, tell me about him," I said.

"Willingly," he said. "Like almost all grandfathers, he was in the thick of the Great War, but in a most unusual way. Thing was, my father worked for a firm in the Midlands in the first years of the century. Unfortunately, it wasn't the British Midlands. It was the Midlands of Germany. Anyway, as the war approached, there was great pressure on him to join up and fight. From the Germans. To prove that he wasn't a spy. So he did – he joined the German army."

"My God!" I said. "Your father took up arms against his own country! I don't believe it!"

"Steady on! Be fair! He couldn't be sure he was actually going to fight against England. Germany tends to invade places like Belgium and France much more than Britain, and he had no objection to helping smash the French."

"Yes, but..."

"I know what you're going to say. How could he bear to eat all those sausages and dumplings? But you're wrong. The German army was the first one in the world to offer its men a vegetarian alternative. Sauerkraut, actually. No, what made life difficult for him was that his German wasn't too good and he kept not understanding orders and... well, finally he just left."

"You mean, he deserted?"

"Let's just say that he came back to England with his family," said my father, "and joined the British army. Ended up in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. To begin with, his exploits in the German army were of value to the officers, who debriefed him on life as a German soldier. Unfortunately, he couldn't remember much beyond the catering side of things, and there was only so much information about sauerkraut that the British army needed. What finally turned them against him was that he didn't speak Welsh, and lots of people in the RWF didn't speak English, only Welsh, so he found himself a bit of an outcast in the ranks."

"Just like in the German army," I said.

"Aye," he said. "Now, we shall never know exactly what drove my father to leave the RWF. It might have been..."

"Do you mean he deserted again?"

"It might have been the thought of fighting against his erstwhile Boche brothers-in-arms," said my father, ignoring me. "It may have been the endless droning of war poets in the trenches which drove him mad – Robert Graves was in the same regiment, of course. People talk about shell shock. They never mention sonnet shock. Anyway, my father went on leave and didn't come back."

"Went on the run, you mean."

"Nothing cowardly about my father, as his next move showed. He joined the Red Cross."

"Humanitarian move," I said.

"Very clever move," said my father. "Who would ever think of looking for a missing person in the Red Cross? And of course the Red Cross were in the thick of it, shot at by both sides. He met Hemingway in the Great War, you know. Both were working in the Red Cross."

"How did they get on?"

"Hated each other," said my father tersely. "Hemingway made life impossible for my father. Finally he couldn't take it any longer and he and the Red Cross went their separate ways. When the war ended, he was uncomfortably aware that he was probably the only soldier still wanted for desertion by both sides, and that if he didn't take measures, he might end up being shot. Armies go on looking for deserters after wars end, you know. There isn't much else for them to do, actually."

My father fell silent.

"So what happened?"

"Oh, he changed his name, and his identity, and started a new life. But they never give up, you know. They're cunning devils. And in 1924 they finally got him. We came home one day and found my father, stretched out on the floor ..."

"Dead?" I said.

"Suffering from diabetes," he said. "The Red Cross had finally caught up with him and dealt with him in the only way they knew how. Medically."

"But..."

We were called for supper at that moment, and my father never referred to my grandfather again.

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