Sunday, November 15, 2009


war memorial, Charlton South London

I've been thinking about my (maternal) grandfather - "little grandad", as opposed to the other one who was "big".

He was in the trenches in the first world war and that gives me a sense of connection to those awful events, months, years - because he was there and because he was also part of my life.

Somewhere in my family there is a great photo I remember of him, aged probably in his 40s, with a couple of mates in the sunshine, baggy trousers, vest and braces, cigarette... but I couldn't find it in my scrapbooks and stache of old photographs. The search has taken more time than I'd planned to spend (time, tears, smiles) so I now don't have the time I'd planned to spend scanning in pictures.... sorry.

His name was Harry, he was an east-ender - too young to fight in WW1 but he lied about his age in order to go to war and he and his brother and best friend Tom were there in the mud and blood and thunder, in the first gas attack at Ypres and other horrors and lucky to ever come safely home.

Little grandad couldn't fight in WW2 because the shattered ear drums he came home with in 1918 left him very deaf - so he stayed in London and served as a first-aid officer. I remember him patching up my childhood scrapes and scratches and wish it was still possible to buy kaolin poultice, I know the smell would transport me right back there to his gentle firm hands on my little legs.

He dug for victory during the war and one of my strongest childhood memories is his long, long, narrow immaculate garden in north east London - fruit, veg, greenhouse, the smell of tomato plants also transports me back to him. And chrysanthemums, dahlias, old fashioned pinks and aquilegia.

I so loved staying with nan and grandad, I remember a huge soft puffy heavy old eiderdown and the hard heavy towel-wrapped stone hot waterbottle. He was strict in a way which made me know I was safe and loved. He loved war films and westerns and his hearing aid whistled constantly.

Heres a photo after all, quickly photographed - one of my favourite family photos ever, July 1920.

My daughter was quite profoundly struck by the death, recently, of the last surviving participant in the 1914-18 war - she is troubled by the fact that there is no longer anyone with us who was actually there, who could tell us.

I very much wish she could have known little grandad. If I could spend time with and get to know better one of my grandparents, it would be him.

This morning I finished reading Avilion - a very long-awaited sequel to Robert Holdstock's (wonderful) Mythago Wood, which I was going to write about but there are quite enough of my words here already.

But one of the images in the book is that of a battlefield of tartan, and at the end of the book is this poem written by the author:

The Field of Tartan
(written for my grandfather. Who walked across this field on the Somme: July 1916).

I walked for my life, across a field of tartan

The Scots went first. They had it worst.
The First, the Twenty-First.
They sowed the seeds, the soft touch
Of fabric-woven earth, over which we walked.
They had been mown down to a man.

They made a field of tartan.

Before they went, they sang,
The songs were haunted.
We joked about their skirts; they took it in good part,
there was a sense of peace,
That touch of Spartan in each heart.

(He walks for his life, across a field of tartan)

No mud when the top was crossed,
When the iron wind blasted and counter-crossed,
Seeking the marrowbone, the head, the heart,

Taking us down into that field of tartan.

It was so strange, so savage.
Astonishing to find no earth, just fallen flesh
To briefly meet a dying gaze,
A last remembered highland day.
To walk over limbs clad in scarlet tartan.
And we slipped and slid upon the patterned cloth, but made the other line.
There was killing, then.
No charms, just arms, the sinking down, the frightened frown,
Flesh suddenly shaped into dirt, life dearth,
Blood silt,
Nothing to hearten us
Except our unwanted luck at walking over hand-weaved kilt.
Not sinking into earth.
Walking across a field of tartan.

Robert Holdstock, March 2008 (revised September 2008)
published in Avilion, London: Gollancz 2009, p.339-340


Susan said...

Lovely post. I share your daughter's concern about the last of the WWI veterans' death & the loss of connection. And I'm much older than she though I was but a few years older when I left the States & went to France to live (in the east, on the Rhine. Full of very real, daily reminders of what went on there).

I've a shelf full of books detailing the slide into that war & it's chilling. The costs of it &'s overwhelming really.

I want to drag people I know over to battlefields & camps across Europe, into the MEast (I've not been to East Asia) & show them what I've seen. Also to try & convey what post-WWII was really like. No, I wasn't born before the war but my grandmother was stuck in London visiting her family, so I heard plenty as a child.


Well, this will not be linked to my site...this got to me. (As did the poem, of course.)

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

What a wonderful, thoughtful post, Lettuce - and likewise, I share your daughter's concern. It seems without those who were actually there to remind us, we forget the lessons of the past all too quickly.

ArtSparker said...

That poem is remarkable, the horror that is so thing Sheri Tepper mentioned that human beings lack (in her new science fiction book) is a racial memory, so we naively persist in the old mistakes. I almost feel as if I had met your grandfather after reading the post.

Akelamalu said...

What a lovely tribute to your 'little' granddad. Your mention of Kaolin Poultice brought back memories of my mother, she used it all the time. :)

Ronda Laveen said...

Thanks for sharing the story of "little grandad" with us. It strikes my how back when, young men would like about their age to get into service. They don't do it now do they?

Lovely photograph! So glad you found the time.

Barbara said...

What I learned about WWI came from 2 books which I read within the past 5 years: All Quiet on the Western Front and Regeneration. Both were extremely well written and left a lasting impression of what was certainly one of the bloodiest wars.

The old photo is priceless. It certainly captures the time in which it was taken. Love all those hats.

Shammickite said...

I wear my poppy and I remember.
I visited my mother's cousin's WW1 grave in France four years ago. He was the only son, with 4 sisters. He came from England to Canada to learn farming when he was 18. He enlisted in the Canadian Machine Gun Corps at the start of the war. By the time he was 21, he was dead. I cried at his grave even though I was born many years after his death.

herhimnbryn said...

Thankyou for introducing me to 'Little Grandad'.

Anonymous said...

I have been to Ypres twice, and once walked down in several old trenches --they kept a few miles of them open, the tunnel parts were a bit scary to walk in, and you could sense the enormity of what had happened there. The people of Iper (Flemmish) are so welcoming and all around are memorials to men like Harry.

e said...

A profound post, Lettuce! I wish no generation had to experience war, but it seems we never learn, despite the sacrifices of others.

Lynne said...

Lovely tribute to your "little" grandad, Letty. Glad you enjoyed the tribute to my own grandfather who fought in WWII.

Does the UK have the equivalent "holiday" of honoring war veterans like we do? Ours was Nov. 11, the reason why I did my post when I did. I'm sure you must, probably just not the same day.

Someone above mentioned wearing a poppy. I used to sell poppies outside the local grocery store with my grandfather. I remember it well.

mouse (aka kimy) said...

wow, thank you for such a wonderful, heartfelt and touching post.

what a precious photo of the family!

Steve said...

Beautiful post. Like Rhonda, I'm struck by the fact that young men would lie in an effort to go to war. I don't necessarily think that was a good thing, but it's certainly true that those days are gone.

Did your grandfather ever write down any of his memories? I think veterans often feel such things are better left forgotten or unsaid, when in reality, we need to know what they experienced.