Each November, a smaller and smaller number of men and women who fought in the Second World War are there at the Cenotaph, marching in remembrance of their fallen comrades. There is no one left at all from those who fought in World War One. Their voices have fallen silent. But – every now and again – something turns up that brings them back to life.
Walter E. Young fought in World War One. He went out to France, he endured the squalor of the trenches, the mud, the lice, the periods of yammering boredom that alternated with the fear, the noise and the carnage. He was there at Ypres, and was captured by the Germans in March 1918. Finally released from a prisoner of war camp sometime after the war finished, he came home, got on with his life and never mentioned his experiences. He got married, had children, then grandchildren, then died, still keeping his experiences to himself.
It was only when his son, David, was clearing out the family house in Cressida Road, Upper Holloway, that Walter’s wartime experiences finally came to light. As Walter’s granddaughter, Hilary, describes in Walter’s War:
David … found three notebooks of his father’s meticulous handwriting, along with his war medals, a wealth of letters, official documents, newspaper cuttings and photos relating to that period. It seems that no-one knew of these details of his experiences in the Great War until then, most probably not even his beloved wife, Elsie.
Walter was not the only man to come back from the war and say nothing. The sheer horror of much that had been witnessed was just too much for many of the men. It had been appalling and they wanted to forget – and why burden their families with all that suffering? But clearly Walter had remembered, and had finally come to the point where he wanted to at least write it all down, even though nobody in his family knew he had done so. He didn’t write for publication, but what he produced is vivid, moving and illuminating.
Walter was already in the Territorial Army when the war broke out in August 1914, but he was reluctant to go. As he said, “I had no heart for war.” He worked for the Post Office, in London, and the Post Office had its own unit, the 8th London Regiment of the Post Office Rifles, part of the 47th Division. He started as a rifleman, but later was a stretcher-bearer, which meant he was unarmed, and there not to take life, but to save it. He was still acting as a stretcher-bearer in March 1918, when he was wounded. What lifts Walter’s memories above the usual level is the way he wrote. This is his account of what happened that day:
I dropped to the ground and called out “Oh, I’m hit” … As I went to the earth I murmured audibly to myself the words “at last”. Many and many a time I had envied men who had been wounded and how I had wished for a “blighty one” myself, but the weeks and months and even years had passed and it seemed as if I was to go on and on. And now I was hit … I fear the heroic spirit of keeping on in spite of wounds was not mine. All the way through, my heart was never in the war. And having been wounded in the execution of my duty and in the laudable task of trying to get back to my Company, I felt I was now honourably entitled to get back out of it.
But it was not to be. As he and his companion started to crawl back to what they thought were their own lines:
I saw some figures with rifles about 80 yards away and right where we were heading for. I could not believe that they were German soldiers, for only about five minutes before we had come almost past the spot where they now were … Then the figures began to come towards us and I saw the helmets and the long grey coats they were wearing. I could hardly believe my eyes. “They’re Germans!” I gasped.
And so began Walter’s time as a prisoner of war. He was a quiet man, and not one to draw attention to himself, but eventually he began to lead Christian services for his fellow prisoners, because he saw they needed the comfort that his own faith gave him. It wasn’t something he had done before and it wasn’t something he ever did again once the war was over and he was finally sent home. As he said, describing life as a prisoner of war:
Up in our barracks life was dull. There was practically nothing to do and little to read, though I had the New Testament that I had carried through the war … There came a time when, seeing the men passing their time aimlessly away, that the words “Sheep without a shepherd” came to me with much force and remained with me in a striking way, and I resolved to make an effort to have a Sunday evening service. I felt very incompetent and unworthy to attempt such a thing.
Among the documents that Walter had left and David discovered were the official letters sent to his mother once he had been captured. Initially, the Army officials didn’t know what had happened to him – it always took time for the Red Cross to pass on the names of captured soldiers – but that wasn’t going to stop officialdom. Now he had disappeared, clearly they didn’t have to pay him any longer, which meant, in effect, as he wasn’t married, they no longer had to send any of his pay to his mother either. Instead, they sent her a letter: after confirming that ‘Mr W.E. Young is reported as missing’ they went on to say: ‘I should mention that the payment of the balance of civil pay will now unfortunately cease.’
The war was grim – but it wasn’t unremittingly grim, nor, as we often believe, was it all spent in frontline trenches, being bombarded by enemy gunfire. Once the soldiers were withdrawn from the frontline, which was done regularly, they could find themselves in almost unspoilt countryside. Walter records days of peace, away from the battles. But it is his accounts of being under fire that really stand out. Early in the book, he records the first time he was under fire, in May 1915:
… the German guns started and for the first time we experienced the full fury of a modern bombardment. All day they pelted us mercilessly, never pausing for a minute. The shells were falling three or four at a time all round us.
Soon after, he was under fire again:
It was a pitch-black night. Shells shrieked over our heads and fell beyond the road. Some fell a little short. At last, when within 20 to 30 yards of the barricade, a shell came crashing right in the midst of us. It seemed to me as though it came right at me and the explosion was deafening and demoralising. We had instinctively flung ourselves on the ground. I felt the hot air of that shell on me.
On that occasion, Walter and his fellow soldiers ended up in a trench that was, further on, occupied by German soldiers – only a line of sandbags separated the two armies. Men had been wounded, and Walter recalls:
Some of us were on top filling sandbags to strengthen the position when suddenly bombs thrown by the Germans began to fall all around us. Wounded men cried out. One man was crying “Help me, somebody” piteously. I heard afterwards a bomb had exploded in his face, blinding him, and he died later. The awful suddenness by which a man, sound and strong one minute, could become a broken wreck the next … We crouched in our ditch peering, between bomb explosions, into the blackness. Just where I was, the bombs all seemed to burst about one yard in front of us, as though that was the limit they could throw. We were a bit dazed by the explosions but unhurt. Then someone gave the alarm that they were coming at us. The order “Rapid fire!” was given and we all blazed away as hard as we could. I doubt if any of the troops could have passed through that fire. Then things died down, and then again the alarm would be given …
And then things got worse. Walter’s accounts inevitably bring to mind the incompetence so well portrayed in Blackadder Goes Forth:
Men in a rear trench … probably intending to help us, began firing, but in the darkness and confusion many of their bullets were directed at us, so we were practically being fired at from all sides. I heard later that three men in succession were sent to explain to the rear trench, and each one was killed, but a fourth got through.
But it is not just the fighting he remembered from that night.
We looked out into inky blackness. Unnoticed by us, the dark clouds overhead had been getting darker, and then about the first hour of this Whit Sunday, during the height of the noise and confusion, occurred the most terrific thunderstorm I have known. It was as though this scene of violence and bloodshed had brought upon us the wrath of God. The rain came down with tropical violence so that within a short time we were drenched through and our ditch, called a trench, became under water … There seemed a power and majesty about the thunder that made guns seem paltry.
The sheer vividness of Walter’s writing is exceptional. Across 100 years of history, we can be back there with him.