Today we remember. But the question I find myself asking is, what do we remember? I could sit here now and tell you tales of glory. I could tell you tales of lives lost in the cause of freedom and the heroic battle for our shared liberty.
Only I can’t, because today is not a day for such stories.
Today we remember the lives given fighting a cause which was immensely political. Propaganda and drum banging will remember this war fondly. But the tale of my grandfather and great-grandfather is one which is not to be remembered with such glory.
Strictly speaking, it is 1918 and the end of World War One that we mark on this day. But as the guns fell silent on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month; a new war was set in motion at Versailles.
My Grandfather, William Henry Rowland, was a small boy. His father (my great grandfather), Bodger Rowland, was a labourer who upon the outbreak of war in 1939 went to fight with the Royal Artillery.
Initially Bodger went to fight in France. Where, somewhat coincidentally, I am as I write this. But finding himself being stranded at Dunkirk and evacuated back to England, he was then sent to North Africa where he seen action at El Alamein.
Back home my grandfather was living where his father had left him. In a two room apartment in John Street, Swindon.
There are many ways to explain the next part. But like me, my grandfather is a poet. So I’ll let his verse tell the story:
THE GREEN PISSING PALE
There’s a car park there now,
But doesn’t cover the image;
They think I have forgotten
What my father fought a war for.
I know what he fought for;
The pissing pail in the fire place,
That made tunes in the dark,
Like waterfalls and gentle rain.
I never liked the yard loo
And it wasn’t the fear of bombs,
But fear of centipedes
Waiting for me to bare my bum.
He fought for freedom too
And my mother took her freedom
And went off to London,
Leaving us with the pissing pail.
He fought to give us bread,
No meat or fish, but crusts of bread;
And heard a preacher say,
Man cannot live on bread alone.
He fought for the aged
Like my grandma in the large bed;
That filled the living room;
In the back room – the pissing pail.
Bombs never fell on us,
What harm could they do anyway,
Kill the bugs on the wall?
Or blow up the green pissing pail.
Then they took us away,
Along with our scabies and lice,
Left my father to fight their war,
To come back to an empty pail.
The sad part is that the story doesn’t end here. My grandfather and his brothers were eventually found by the authorities, full of their “scabies and lice.” Needless to say they were taken into the care of The State, and promptly found themselves placed in a home for boys.
They were of course outrageously treated. As I’m sure most will know by now the conditions fell far below what one could call befitting a free country. These homes were after all run by men from the first war who we would now recognise as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
My grandfather and his brothers stayed at two different homes. One in Salisbury and the other in Mere. My grandfather describes the home in Salisbury as being “like something out of a Dickens novel. Cruel and barbaric.”
But again. I’ll let me grandfather tell the story in verse:
There’s a roundabout now
Where the great house stood
With its manicured lawns
And a small private wood.
There were leafy lanes
And sweeping downs,
A place called home
That’s run by clowns,
Each boy with a number
With a seat on the floor
Safe from the bombs
Protecting the poor;
But was it the bombs
That spelt the danger,
Or the parent elect,
The cold dark stranger.
Of course the war eventually ended and my great-grandfather came home. With nothing but an empty pissing pail to greet him. For him the war was not one long tale of glory and smashing Rommel at El Alamein. But a story of how he fought a war so that his children might be cruelly treated in a children’s home.
He eventually returned from the war and made contact with my grandfather again. And full with guilt even marched him down to the police station one day. Telling a police sergeant, in no uncertain terms, to explain to my grandfather that he had no choice but to fight the war and there was nothing he could have done to prevent his children being held in such Dickensian conditions. Yet of course, the damage had been done.
My great grandfather Bodger didn’t work much again. And by all accounts he had become a man who was much troubled by what he had seen.
Rumour has it that he lived out his days poaching the local wildlife and thumping anybody who upset him. After all, as big and strong as he was, it seems the war left him somewhat unable to control his fist and its propensity to break noses and disfigure jaw lines. But such is the anger that those returning from war often live with. And in this sense war today presents many of the same problems for those having to live through the post war peace.
Of course, there are many ways I could end this. But I’ll end it in two ways.
Firstly, it is by saying that war is a ghastly business, as well as a horrific waste of life and sanity. My great-grandfather, Bodger Rowland, was a good man who wanted nothing more than the best for his children. But instead he was thrown into a war and forced to fight on pain of prison or death, whilst his children were held captive by the state.
But once more, I’ll finish with my grandfathers verse. Just what he is saying in this poem I’ll leave you to decide. Along with what he means when he refers to a “red brick building”.
I remember the Laburnum tree
A little over the age of three
And joining the other small boys
Watching the fat man making toys.
Sounds of bombs in the distance falling,
The long wait of a mothers calling.
The only thing that shed the tears,
As war for us held no such fears.
Just the dreadful years that passed us by
And where the spirit would often die.
The red brick building still standing there
Full of all the ghosts that we still share.
Now it’s used by the powers that be
Blind to its cruel and past history.