With this weekend being Remembrance Sunday my thoughts turned to members of my family who lived through the two world wars. I think I must be unique in that neither of my grandfathers fought in the First World War. Mum’s dad, Frederick Ireland, was a master builder and was exempted because he was in a reserved occupation. He was also forty years old when war was declared so would, probably, have been one of the last to be called up on account of his age. His exemption certificate stated he was due temporary exemption to 4th October 1918.
My other granddad, Victor Ernest Martin, some seven years younger was also exempt on the same grounds. His occupation was as a valet at the Army and Navy club. The officers must have their comforts when on furlough eh what!
Dad, on the other hand was called up in 1940. He and Mum married when he was on leave in November of that year. He was sent to Woolwich Arsenal to join the 64th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery and trained as a gunner. He was shipped out to the Middle East and fought in campaigns in Egypt and North Africa before being sent to Greece where he was badly wounded just outside Thessalonika when the truck he was in ran over a landmine. Several of the others were killed but Dad was fortunate that he had curled up to go to sleep and thus protected vital organs. Nonetheless his injuries were bad enough, a fractured femur and both radius and ulna in his right arm. He said the German soldier who accepted his surrender uttered the cliché, “For you, Tommy, the war is over”
After being patched up and having his broken limbs reset at a field hospital he was transferred to Caserta military hospital in the South of Italy. He always said he owed his life to the nursing sisters at the hospital as his leg wound became badly infected. There was a shortage of antibiotics so the nuns resorted to a traditional remedy of allowing the wound to become flyblown. The maggots ate away all the necrotic flesh leaving the wound clean and permitting normal healing.
Unfortunately, when the plaster cast was taken off Dad’s arm it was discovered that the surgeon who had set it had misunited the bones so that the upper part of the radius was joined to the ulna and vice versa. This, along with nerve damage meant he was unable to perform actions that required fine movement or arm rotation so he taught himself to write left handed and played cricket with the bat in his left hand.
Once his injuries had healed sufficiently he was taken to Stalag VIIIA, Lamsdorf in Silesia which was, then, part of Germany. Nowadays it is Lambinowice and in Poland. Dad always spoke very positively of his years as a POW and had the highest regard for the Camp Kommondant and the guards. He said, more than once, that if he met any of them again he’d shake their hands and say, “Fritz you were only doing your duty, the same as I was.” He commented that they were “Damn fine soldiers”
While he was in Lamsdorf Dad met two New Zealand soldiers, Jim Bland and Ritchie Kelly, who were to become lifelong friends. Dad was repatriated in 1944 and after the war had finished Jim and Ritchie came to stay at Priory Grove with our family. While there, Ritchie met and fell in love with Mum’s youngest sister Gwen, married her and took her to New Zealand as a war bride.
After the war came the reality of fitting back into Civvy Street again. Before being called up Dad had worked for Sainsbury’s as a butcher but, with the damage to his hand, was no longer able to cut up sides of meat so took whatever job he was offered. Thus followed a period of Dad working for a week or two in a job for which he was totally unsuited, chucking it in and coming home on a Friday with his pay packet which Mum would then spend, say to Dad, “Right we’re broke again, you’d better find another job” Among the jobs he’d had were as a spray painter, making ladies’ powder compacts at a factory in the East End and for a while had a window cleaning round but found it was too hard cycling and washing windows with a gammy leg and a fairly useless right hand.
His treatment for his injuries continued for several years after he returned home. I can remember, as a small child, accompanying him on trips to St Thomas’ hospital. Although the injury to his arm had healed he continued to get abcesses . The treatment seemed to be for him to sit with his forearm in a sink full of hot paraffin wax. This was a treatment that had been used for injuries since Roman times and was popular during WW1. It never seems to have occurred to the hospital to break and reset Dad’s arm with the bones attached correctly.
After discharge Dad, like so many others, was issued with his “demob” suit. In his case it was a gingery Harris tweed which we always called his “park keeper’s” suit as the LCC park keepers used to wear ones of the same material. When he and Mum used to take me up the Little Rec it wasn’t unusual for someone to ask him something about the park.
Because of his injuries Dad was entitled to a war pension. It wasn’t a lot but Dad said, even if it was only a farthing, he’d fight to get it because if he didn’t fight for his entitlement he’d be letting down some poor bastard (his words) who needed it more and was unable to fight for his rights.
Surprisingly Dad refused to claim his war medals on the grounds that, because everyone was eligible for them, they were of no value either monetarily or emotionally. I can relate to this attitude as I feel that nowadays, with the emphasis on all school leavers gaining tertiary qualifications in is downgrading the value of a degree. Such things are only valuable if only a few possess them. But I digress……
Right up until 1967 when my parents decided to emigrate they would attend the annual regimental reunion which was held at the Cock Tavern in Great Portland Street.
The only exception to this was 1960, the 21st anniversary of the regiment, which was held at the Café Royal. The menu for dinner included delights such as Coupe Otranto, Supreme de Volaille Alamein and Souffle Ardennes. Each dish being named after a field of conflict where the regiment had fought. The Guest of Honour at this reunion was Lt-Gen. The Rt. Hon. Lord Freyburg who, at that time, was governor general of New Zealand. This was the first time I was allowed to go to a regimental dinner along with Mum and Dad, Nana and Aunty Mick and Uncle Frank. We were presented to Lord Freyburg because of Aunty Gwen being a war bride and living in NZ.
I remember him as being a very upright, spare man but who appeared genuinely interested in talking to us and who was happy to have his photo taken shaking hands with Dad. Alas, like so many things relating to our family history, this photo was thrown out was thrown out when my parents emigrated and now remains only a memory.