On every Remembrance Day there is one person in particular I remember – my grandfather. I had a very close relationship with him, or so I thought but it was actually after his death that I learned the most about him.
Way back when I was a child, my grandfather lived with us after he was widowed. He was actually a fairly quiet and private man but he had a lot of patience for ‘little me’ who followed him round constantly.
When I was about 10, he remarried and went to live with his new wife but I always went round to visit him. I never, ever thought at the time, that he was just listening to me and didn’t actually speak about his life before he first married.
When I was 13, I was took my first school trip to Belgium to see all the WW1 sights. Excited, I told him everything about my visit and he just listened intently. My step grandmother fought in both world wars and she was happy to talk me through her experiences but not my grandfather. He just listened to me, nodding and agreeing in all the right places. I have to make a brief mention that I was lucky enough to visit the Menin gate during a remembrance parade with WW1 veterans. It is something that will never leave me. I feel so honoured to have been able to do that and even at a young age it had a lifelong effect on me.
When I was 15, I got the opportunity to go to France to visit all the WW2 sites in Normandy. Again, I sat and told my grandfather about the trip and again, he listened while I spoke. I remember so vividly, that rather naively, I asked him what the air raids were like. He just said ‘frightening’ but not much more. He reached for a tin which had an old brass pencil sharpener in it and he told me I could have it. ‘It’s seen two world wars’ he said. I treasure it.
My grandfather died when I was in my late teens. It tortured my mother. That’s when she changed. She started to tell me that her father was a very difficult man when she was growing up. He became rather dependant on alcohol when my grandmother was ill and he could be abusive at times. She said she resented him and his relationship with me because I could see the good in him but she couldn’t. She struggled to see past the alcohol abuse when she was losing her mother.
As the years went on, time heals as they say and slowly my mother realised that she knew nothing of her father, his family or his past. He meant so much to me, I thought there must be more to his life to explain his difficult past and why he never spoke of it. I started doing a family tree.
My grandfather was born in 1910. His father, was a leading boatman for the coastguard so that meant moving about. In 1916 my great grandfather was seriously injured defending the north coast and died shortly after. I located his grave but it was unmarked – a paupers grave. It took several years for my great grandmother to get his war gratuity so I’m guessing it left them poor. They also lost their house because it was provided by the coastguard. My grandfather started work when he was 14 as a butcher boy. My grandfather, losing his father at such a young age was bound to have had an impact but it may not explain everything so with the help of my mother, I requested my grandfather’s war record.
Nothing could have prepared me or my mother for what was in that record. We had no idea. For the ten years previous to WW2 my grandfather had lived and served in India. In 1939 at the outbreak of WW2 he lost his mother. This explained why he didn’t ever speak of his parents, he’d lost them both so long ago.
My grandfather started the war in Africa, then in 1942 he served in Burma. He was part of the first wave as a driver/mechanic in the second royal tank regiment. It was hell. There is no doubt about that. The Japanese were brutal and the troops couldn’t do anything but leave. My grandfather was responsible for destroying tanks and cars to stop them falling into enemy hands and he had a long, long walk, a very dangerous walk, to India. It took around two months. Having read the book ‘Exodus Burma’ I got a sense of the horror he faced.
My grandfather had experienced the most horrific conditions, in a battle the troops were completely unprepared for. Dropping supplies was risky for allied forces because the Japanese also benefited from the drops and going out in the open was dangerous so food and supplies were very scarce. The Japanese were experts at jungle warfare and were beyond brutal, They used humans strapped to vehicles, setting traps to draw men out to shoot them. The roads were lined with rotting corpses and dying/injured men, women and children. The troops faced horrendous weather conditions and dangerous rivers to cross. Many drowned, became injured or too weak to make the journey. My grandfather was one of the lucky ones. He made it. He was emaciated and suffering from Dysentery but he made it. He earned the Burma star. But the war didn’t end there. He was given a few weeks to recover and then he was off to Iraq. Then he was stationed in Italy to end the war and earned his Italy star.
So there we had the facts and it went such a long way in explaining my grandfather’s past. I initially felt very sad that I was not able to listen to his story, in his own words but he must have made a decision to never revisit the horrors of war. I’ve since learned that many who served in Burma kept the horror to themselves including my father in-law. It’s a miracle that he manged a full working life after and he raised four children. He really was an incredible man and my mother sees that now as well. War clearly had an impact on him and it defined him – we just didn’t know it. So now, every remembrance day I think of my grandfather. An amazing man who served in, what has been named as, the forgotten war.
When you buy your poppy this year, wear it with pride in honour of those who fought and died in ‘the forgotten war’
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