The Bells of Hell (IP)
I feel a certain affinity with The Great War and wonder, sometimes, whether I was in it in a previous life. The discomfort of the trenches, the mud, the rats, the hiding in makeshift dugouts and the lurking terror of being called to go 'over the top' somehow seem very real. Maybe I just have a good imagination.
My grandfather lost a leg in that war. It seems very careless, losing a leg and I remember, as a child, that he wouldn't talk about it. The replacement was hollow aluminium, painted a flesh colour and I remember playing at his feet one day and discovering a hole in it, just big enough for me to drop a marble into. He had to excuse himself, go and get undressed, unstrap it and tip the marble out again. I don't recall him being angry about it - he was probably as bemused as I was.
I was in a production of "Oh What a Lovely War" at university. I have fond memories of that production. There we were, all dressed up as pierrots, happily singing wartime songs and pretending to be soldiers in comic sketches. It was all a bit of a laugh, until the final night's production had finished and we were shown the slides projected up behind us as we clowned on stage.
The contrast was staggering and I understood why the audience reaction was sometimes unexpectedly muted. The mock horror of our playacting was thrown aside by the real horror of the scenes flashed up there in stark black and white, the casual acceptance of death as an everyday reality in that barren, pockmarked landscape.
It ended 100 years ago, but the memory was much closer in my childhood, in the aftermath of the Second World War - the one that was never supposed to happen after the carnage of the first one.
I has an interest in the machinery of war, the tanks, aircraft and ships, in my youth. Their deadly purpose was secondary to the mechanics of the machinery, but now all that has faded. The inhumanity of man to man has surpassed it. The ability of those in power to unleash their dreams of supremacy against whole populations and slaughter them in cold blood.
We moved house about 1970, into a 1930s bungalow, left empty, as usual, save for a faded photograph of a young man in army uniform and his commemorative certificate. Was it perhaps his widow or his sweetheart who had lived in solitude, keeping his memory alive over the years? I will never know, but I kept those memories in trust, rather than see them discarded. Now so much information is online, it's time for me to unearth them from their hiding place and try to piece his history together, acknowledge his sacrifice as one among so very many, and hopefully find a family I can pass them on to, where they rightfully belong.
Who knows, if reincarnation is a reality, that young soldier may even have been me.