Wednesday, 8 November 2017

WWI - Voices of our Grandfathers and others

1. WWI - Voices of our Grandfathers heard from our mouths and the mouths of others

Families grow up with their own war stories. Conversation often sparks the recollection of an all too familiar tale, repeated for the umpteenth time, though the fascination for us youngsters never wanes.

The experiences of our grandfathers/great-grandfathers serving in the World Wars are particularly sketchy for most.

My grandfather, Arthur Tatt, experienced warfare in WWI. I know that whatever his contribution was, he, (like the rest of the disillusioned souls who returned home) was once prepared to die for his country, and, yes, he had survived but he had been a victim in a different sense. 

We know that the situation wasn’t good for many after their return from mainland Europe at the end of the Great War. A large percentage had been left injured, disabled and mentally scarred. Many bewildered by public opinion and alienating attitudes on their return; and jobs were hard to find.
Grandfather Arthur, alongside my grandmother, Violet (Dolly) 

Arthur took on a trade. He repaired cars. He worked for Mann Egerton & Co. a retailer and service centre of automobiles at a car showroom and garage in central Norwich, in Norfolk. Over the course of time he was promoted to a supervisory position. Stories of him paint a picture of somebody rather harsh. From rural Northamptonshire originally, a farm worker and horse handler. Later, he, and my grandmother, Violet (known as Dolly), raised seven children; money was tight. They lived in a local authority dwelling on a council estate that was newly built after the end of WWII situated to the west of Norwich centre.

Arthur was regimental, controlling and strict (especially with the girls). His third son, my late father, served an apprenticeship at the same place of work as he. Rebellious and defiant, my Dad purposely provoked Arthur on several occasions, developing the skill to play on his nerves. In later years, with regret, my Dad realised that his immature actions had let the old man down. Likewise, the sudden acts of violence Arthur had once set upon my dad, gave way to an eventual mellowing of spirit over the years.

Dolly had died a year before my birth, but I remember Arthur handing me glacier mints on the only visit to his home that I can recall making. That sweet mint must have cleared my mind for this is one of my earliest memories…He was so lovely that day - kind and gentle.

Arthur died in the mid to late 1960s. I guess my Dad and he weren’t particularly close in later years, this may be the reason why my mum can’t readily recall much about Arthur’s roles in both the Boer War or The Great War when I prompt her for information. I know that Arthur served under the 12th Lancers but I remain uninformed to this day, as to where and how he was involved in the WWI conflict. I believe he was in the transport division and that could have involved the horses I assume. He returned home to England in 1915., through injury perhaps? Or it may be he was in one of early cavalry involvement, so if he were in the trenches he wasn’t long serving in those hell holes. Arthur lost a first cousin in the war, George Tatt (aged 18) his name appears on the War Memorial in the village of Ramsey, Northamptonshire.

We know a little more about the young life of my husband’s grandfather, Edward Flynn. I’m not sure whether or he enlisted at the outbreak of war in 1914 or was conscripted in. I know the depleted ranks of soldiers as the war continued on meant that Edward fought in all of the major, devastating battles of WWI. Edward’s regiment had to be constantly regrouped and renamed because of heavy losses.

A feisty character, small in stature, ex-boxer and gymnast from the North East, later moved down to a mining village in North Warwickshire, with his wife and five children, just before the outbreak of WWII, to work in a coal mine.

Again, there were no stories of trench life around the tea table when my husband, John sat with his grandparents there. No talk of mud digging; gas attacks; the wounded; the dead. That would have been enough to choke on your bread and butter, so few tales were told of the horrors he must have witnessed. These people, who could otherwise tell a cracking good yarn with a relative ease, were silent on the subject. I guess there was never a time or place that was appropriate.

Can we even begin to imagine what Edward endured? From life in the trenches - to life working underground in coal mines– and eventually dying of coal dust coating his lungs. What quality of life did he really have? I know that he lost a brother in the first war, and another in a mining accident. And, after fighting so bravely in the WWI and having been subjected to so much pain and suffering, and, above all, had survived all of that– he must have been filled with deep trepidation in later years, struggling to come to terms with the fact that his son(s) potentially, faced similar adversity, being called up to fight for ‘King and Country’ in WWII. So cruel.

I’m sure that many people feel astonished and incredulous, the same as John and I, in regard to their own family war memories and histories. There has been much interest in the BBCOne series ‘Who Do You Think You Are? in recent years. With celebrities trailing his or her family war related history in an effort to shed new light on the ‘word of mouth’ stories they’d grown-up hearing.

Though evidence is scant and war records are largely inconclusive, it is clearer to us in our more emphatic state on the subject, being more educated and more aware in recent times about the history behind the world wars, that their first-hand horrific experiences would have greatly affected those people.

It is not my place to consider Edward’s personality and positioning after the first war, but what I know about Arthur and the view I have formed of him through hearing those family stories...could it be that the condition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), widely reported by many of our suffering ex-service men and women, may have had some bearing on his sometimes-volatile character? He seemed to be so angry – and yet…did he require a special kind of support that his own people were unable to give him? Or was it regarded by many that he should just be thankful to be alive?

I wonder what Arthur and Edward were like when they were young boys. I wonder what they experienced in battle as young men. What horrors had they endured?

Were they left with an inner torment?

Did they suffer from shellshock?

Did they lose close friends?

Did they sit knee deep in mud for days on end?

Were they lice riddled?


Scared stiff?


Were they emotionally scarred?

Were their lives shattered forever?

2. Voices from the Second World War 

As a child born in the 60s, there was very much a feeling of putting the war stories to bed at the time, the emphasis was on looking forward and not harping back to such bleak times. On hindsight, my generation were uninformed, naive, indifferent even, and people readily dismissed talk of war, as something that happened a long, long time ago. Thankfully, for the last couple of decades with WWI and WWII being on the curriculum for schools, our children and their generation are fully conversant of these dark periods in recent history and us sixties/seventies kids have a better understanding and new found appreciation of the sacrifice of others. There's a book out called 'Voices from the Second World War' where first person accounts of WWII are conveyed to youngsters either face to face, through letters and through talks etc. Chapters include witnesses (some who went on to be famous for doing other things) sharing their memories of experiencing the Blitz and of being an evacuee; some speak of their combative and bombing roles by RAF war planes and armies fighting on the land; with poignant memories being shared of what was going on at the Home Front too. There are also accounts from the naval perspective: Contributors include Eve Branson talking to  Livvy and Poppy Le Butt about her role as a Wren, and Peter Western Dolphin when he joined the Navy.  There are stories of the Holocaust including author, Judith Kerr's sharing her own family story, and Margaret Clapham tells her grandchildren what it is was like to arrive in England as one of the Kindertransport children.  Sir Harold Atcherley tells school girl, Seraphina Evans about his experience of being a Japanese prisoner of war and Takashi Tanemori describes what happened  when living under the of the atom bomb attack on Hiroshima. There's talk of D-Day landings, of resistance movements, the downfall of once powerful people, and European countries being completely broken. 


comment: this book mirrors the aims and objectives of Radio 4's listening project as an example. Fascinating reading and useful educationally

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