Sunday, 2 July 2017

Reflecting on the lives of those who lived through the Great War

George Bradford Simpson circa 1918
This is my uncle George in the last years of the Great War.

Now I suspect it cannot be before 1917 given that he was born in 1899.

And it is an image that will be familiar to us all. 

Similar pictures appear all the time in books and programmes about the First World War and most families will have one photograph of a young man ready to leave for the Front or at home on leave.

These young men stare back at us in their ill fitting uniforms in individual poses or with friends and family and along with those images of the battlefields they pretty much shape our idea of that war.

More recently we have come to see that generation as frail men and women with faltering voices and walking sticks who were venerated as the last of their generation.

We forget the majority of them lived full productive lives, contributed to their community getting on with the daily demands of work family and holidays.

ThomasAlan Simpson, 1963
This I know because I grew up with them, and when I was growing up they were still just in their 50s and early 60s, and were no older than I am now, still vital, still working and many as yet still waiting to be grandparents.

Not that I thought much of any of that until a few days ago when I watched a series of interviews made in 1963 and 64 for the BBC series The Great War.*

None of these interviews made it into the final programmes but watching the men and women talk about the war in strong commanding voices was like listening to my father, my uncles and grandfather.

Dad was just a little too young for that war but two of his brothers one of who was my Uncle George served in France and participated in crossing the Rhine and occupying Germany in the month after the war ended.

And my maternal grandfather courted and married my German grandmother while serving in the same occupying forces in Cologne.

Unknown friend of my uncle, circa 1918
So those young men in their ill fitting uniforms along with the frail men and women with faltering voices are not the only way to remember that generation.

This of course is no original observation but I suspect is one that will get a little overlooked in the coming months as historians and television producers plunder and pour over the archives of the Great War presenting us with what we already know.

It is all too easy to walk away with the neat, easy to understand presentations which confirm our assumption that they were the lost and betrayed young generation who grew old without also thinking of them as people who had a whole life ahead of them.

This in no way underestimates what many of whom went through and the painful loss of friends and relatives.

 None of my family spoke of the war and I never asked them.

Father, and Uncles Fergus, Charles and aunt Lilla, 1973
I guess it was that simple combination of personal preferences.  

For them it was something they had done, remembered with a mix of emotions but sat along side getting married, having children and a succession of jobs, holidays and much else.

For me aged just fourteen when the BBC documentary was made the Great War was that one before the last conflict.  

I was born just four years after the end of the Second World War, when the bomb sites were places I played on and the stirring films of the Battle of Britain, the Dam Busters and the Eighth Army filled the cinemas.

Unknown friend of my uncle, circa 1918
People still referred to that war while the earlier one was less well mentioned and I suppose it wasn't till the publication of the book The Donkeys by Alan Clark in 1961 and the staging of the musical Oh What a Lovely War two years later that it became a reality to me.

And by the time I got round to seeing a production of Oh What a Lovely War in 1967 I had absorbed the conventional interpretation of the conflict.

Now I have followed the recent debates on the causes of the war, the revaluation of its cost in lives and treasure and will fall like most people on the centenary events but I will now give more thought to those young men and women who got on with their lives and were still just a tad past middle age in 1964.

*The Great War, commissioned in August 1963 and shown from May to November 1964 in 26 episodes each lasting 40 minutes.

Pictures; from the collection of Andrew Simpson

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