William Owen’s ending  from his poem of the same name is the only literary element in this blog post.

I’m remembering three relatives of mine, uncles all, who served in World War One, known to my parent’s generation as The Great War. There had been a great war before – in the seventeenth century – which raged across central Europe and put previous remembered wars into the shade.

Of these three uncles the one I knew best was Harry.  The husand of my mother’s eldest sister,  he was an old man when I knew him. He had been in the Signals, and told me tales of the western front. He told of a stagecoach, bearing a cable drum, that was galloped ‘over the top’ following the plodding infantry – until the horses were killed and wounded. Then the crew would take cover in a shell hole while the coach itself was reduced to matchwood by continuous firing. He told of nicking tools from other units – carrying a stencil and paint to put your own unit’s mark on the booty. He told of the French, with whom he served after the desperate collapse of French morale following Nivelle’s disasterous offensive in 1917, squandering a month’s supply of tea in one huge, undrinkable cauldron as an act of misguided welcome. He walked me around the bombsites of Coventry as a child. He had been there on the night of the famous bombing raid in World War Two. He pointed out a cellar where people had drowned from a burst water main, a building reconstituted from ruins – a hospital I think – and a bridge from which a steam locomotive, still attached to its train, had dangled the next day. He showed me the Cathedral, and somewhere, in a box, I may still have the negative of a photograph I took that day, of the makeshift cross, fashioned from charred timbers among the ruins. I can remember the new Cathedral when the pennies set into the floor were still new, bright, brilliant uncirculated a coin collector might have called them. Harry met my auntie while he was convalescing from a wound. She was a QARANC nurse.

I remember too an Uncle George. I never met him. He died in 1939 from a wound received in The Great War. A piece of shrapnel had finally moved, so the story went. He was legendary in the family. You would have loved him, I was often told.

I had two Uncle George’s. The second lived to tell the tale, though he never told it to me. He was the husband of another of my mother’s sisters. I was always a little wary of him. He was a wizened little man, who smoked pungent cigarettes, had a sallow complexion, and coughed a lot. He never worked that I knew of – and I was brought up to revere hard work among other things so, to my shame looked down upon him. I thought he must be some sort of drunkard. In fact he had been gassed in The Great War. Nobody told me this until much later. It was, I suppose, one of those ‘wrongs hushed up’.

One of these Uncle Georges was a little young to have been in that war, but had been encouraged to lie about his age, but I have never been sure exactly which one – someone, so it was said, a woman, girl, lady, had given him a white feather outside a cinema. I like the detail of the cinema in such an otherwise vague recollection. It adds a touch of authenticity.