Remembering 1916, and grandad: life on the western front

By - Friday 8th April, 2016

Robert Ward felt something down the generations when he visited the ‘Remembering 1916′ exhibition

Royal Irish Rifles troops in a communications trench at the Somme on 1st July 1916.
Photo public domain.

I hadn’t thought of grandad for a while. What brought him back to my thoughts was a visit to the ‘Remembering 1916 – Life on the Western Front‘ exhibition at the Whitgift Exhibition Centre.

Grandad died when I was four years old, more than sixty years ago. He was just past his sixty-third birthday, younger than I am now. His death certificate says that he died of congestive heart failure.

I did not see him often, even when we visited my grandparents. In those days even family visitors were only allowed in the ‘parlour’ – the front room of a two-up, two-down, reserved for special visitors.

The western front was where grandad picked up the habit of smoking

Sick people like grandad stayed upstairs in bed. Just occasionally he would briefly come downstairs, beaming all over his face. His unfailing cheerfulness is one of my earliest memories. With hindsight that was probably a show for his first, and at that time only, grandchild.

Grandad had signed up for the Royal Engineers in 1911. He got married in April 1914 aged twenty-three, three months before the outbreak of the First World War, serving his country through one of the most horrific conflicts the world has seen. When he came back his chest was never good. His wheezing breath he blamed on smoking, a habit he had acquired on the western front to pass the time and to dull the sense of smell.

The exhibition gives an inkling of what that might have been like. Long days waiting in trenches, filthy conditions punctuated by brief periods of terror and mayhem. The constant fear of gas, and the horrible death of those who didn’t get their gas masks on quickly enough. The exhibition includes a pillowcase gas mask. Men wearing such a device would have made an already grisly landscape even more terrifying.

When the Second World War broke out, grandad didn’t advise my father not to join up and wait for conscription

But there was also cheerfulness and good humour, the joy of comradeship in adversity. So much so that when the Second World War broke out, grandad didn’t advise my father not to join up and wait for conscription. He said to join up, as that way you get to choose your regiment. He may have regretted that briefly when my father, having joined the RAF, was reported missing, believed killed in 1940. A few days later his parents were told that there had been a mistake.

The exhibition shows some linkages to Whitgift School. Apparently the first plane shot down by Baron von Richthofen, known as the Red Baron, was piloted by a former Whitgift pupil, Lionel Morris. Sadly, although he managed to land the plane, Lionel later died of his injuries.

A tableau of an Edwardian living room is reminiscent of granma’s living room, although granma’s was rather less grand. An upright piano, not a baby grand, but still the dark wood furniture, the biscuit tins with decorated lids, the heavy and elaborate sideboard.

Here’s to everyone who didn’t come back

We live in a different world. My generation was the first for quite a while not to have had to fight in a World War. I was the first in my family, not just to go to university, but to have been educated beyond the age of fourteen. My great grandfather could neither read nor write. There is much to be grateful for.

So here’s to you, grandad. And to great uncle Bill who waited for conscription and got assigned to the Army Ordnance Corps. And to my namesake great uncle who was commissioned on the field of battle in Turkey, but was never made an officer because working class soldiers never were. And to grandad Hopkins whose sight was poor so he spent the war in Egypt in the Army Pay Corps. And to all those who didn’t come back. And to the women who waited and stepped up to do the jobs that needed doing at home. Here’s to them all. Respect.

And grandad, please forgive me for complaining about the tiny obstacles that I have had to overcome. I’ll keep things in a better perspective from now on. Shame on me for thinking that I have had a bad day when the worst that has happened is a train delay and a poor wifi signal.

The exhibition runs until 31st August and is open from 10am to 5pm. There are discounts for Croydon residents.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Anne Giles

    Fantastic article Robert!

    • Robert Ward

      Thank you Anne.

  • David White

    Having visited the exhibition today I must concur with Robert that it’s particularly poignant as it includes the stories of people who walked on the same streets as we do today.

    It’s hard to take in how awful it must have been in the trenches, surrounded by mud, being unable to sleep because of the damp and noise of gun and artillery fire and knowing all the time that you could be sent “over the top” to likely death or injury.

    It’s also hard to comprehend how hard it must have been for families back at home, waiting for news of loved ones. My great-grandmother, who I knew well as a child, had four sons. All went to fight in France, but only two returned. One can only imagine what pain and distress this must have caused her and the family

    The two boys who died had been to Whitehorse Manor School, and their names are engraved in a memorial which is there today, along with the names of very many other former pupils of the school.

    • Robert Ward

      Indeed.Hard to imagine the pain of losing two children in such a way.

  • Robert Ward

    After writing this article I was moved to try to trace that branch of my family tree again. Having previously failed to find any living relatives of my great uncle Robert I was pleasantly surprised to be able now to find his grand-daughter.

    The papers left by her late grandfather show that my great-uncle eventually was commissioned as an officer, but not until 1919. So it is not true to say that a working class soldier couldn’t become an officer. Live and learn.