E Jane Dickson: 'It was easy to be gung-ho in 1916, until you got there and smelled the Somme'

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The Independent Online

Half term crowds are shuffling nose-to-tail through "The Trench Experience" at the Imperial War Museum. The deathly, synthetic whiff of bad feet and gunpowder is cut by the soapy innocence of well-laundered schoolchildren.

Half term crowds are shuffling nose-to-tail through "The Trench Experience" at the Imperial War Museum. The deathly, synthetic whiff of bad feet and gunpowder is cut by the soapy innocence of well-laundered schoolchildren.

"This smells terrible," says Clara. "Let's go back to the 1940s house."

"Soldiers don't care about smells," explains Conor, who, to his delight, has found a model of an artilleryman cooking up bacon and eggs in a rat-hole scooped from the side of the trench. "Look! They got to make their own breakfast and everything."

I'm not sure the children have really grasped the point of "The Trench Experience". "But imagine," I try, "just imagine if you had to live down here for weeks on end, with no clean clothes [Clara, finally, looks impressed by the gravity of the situation] and people dying all around you, knowing that one day, you will be forced to climb that ladder and run out into the mud to be killed."

"I wouldn't be killed," says Conor, stoutly. "I'd have a humungous gun and when the bullets ran out, I'd do karate."

"I'm afraid that, towards the end of the War, it was more likely than not that you would be killed," I tell my boy, who waves away the factual stuff with a come-on-this-is-me-we're-talking-about swagger. It's easy to be gung-ho at six. It was, I guess, easy to be gung-ho in 1916, at least until you got there and smelled the Somme. "They were only boys," I say, more to myself than to the kids, but the point is not lost on Con.

"Well, if they were only boys and they were probably going to get killed, why did their mothers let them go? You wouldn't let me go somewhere like that, would you, Mum?"

"I wouldn't have had any choice," I tell him, though, secretly, I'm pretty sure that I would have locked my son in the coal cellar for four years rather than wave him off to the front. However the museum's display case of call-up paraphernalia, with a particularly chilling letter to a conscientious objector from girl guides bent on sexual humiliation ("Since you are not a man, we invite you to join our troop as washer-up"), makes it clear that, in the testosterone-heavy atmosphere of The Great War, the coal cellar never really was an option.

How could they bear it, I wonder, these women who lost sweethearts and husbands to the First World War, and then, 20 years later, found themselves packing up a new kit bag for their sons? These maternal ghosts stay at my shoulder, scolding and chittering at the idiocy of war, until we chance upon a "live event" - a D-Day veteran answering questions from schoolchildren. Most of all, the children want to know how scared he was.

"Terrified!" replies the veteran in a ringing, parade-ground bark. "There's nothing wrong with being afraid, it's what you do with the fear that counts."

It is a true hero's speech. And it is the oddest thing to stand there looking at an old man in his eighties and thinking how proud his mum would have been. But that is what I do.

"I understand better about war now," says Clara, pleased to tick another topic off her school-project list. "Me too," I say, and we squeeze hands on the way to the café.

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