The beginning of July is pock- marked for me with remembrances, memorials and history… the birthday of my father, the day I shattered my leg four years ago, spending two and a half months in hospital, and the unforgettable anniversary of one of the worst battles of the First World War.
It was a hundred and four years ago, when my step-grandfather stepped out with thousands of other young men on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The first of July, 1916.
He was a north countryman from Northumberland, and the four Northumberland regiments were the first to walk into battle at 7 30 am on a blue sunny morning with the birds singing. The four Geordie regiments stepped purposefully towards the German lines which were supposed to have been bombarded into nothing after five days of thunderous firing – the barbed wire cut by the bombardment also.
For a moment, these fine young men walked into the sudden silence, and then the German machine guns began to fire. The bombardment had neither cut the wire nor killed the enemy, who had moved out of range. The German guns now simply swept the battle field, as their targets continued walking steadily towards them, and line after line of brave young men fell. These regiments belonged to what was known as the New Army, bodies of men who had joined up from their towns, villages and workplaces, calling themselves names like the Grimsby Chums, and the Manchester Pals. They were, to use a cliché which has meaning in this context, the flower of the country’s youth. They had set off that morning believing that this battle would end the war.
Percy, my step-grandfather, didn’t become one of the 60,000 dead British soldiers killed on that one day, but just one of over 30,000 wounded. He was a young officer, and like them all, easily distinguishable to the German machine-gunners. Officers went into battle wearing their service dress, collar and tie, shining leather Sam Browne belts, and carrying a pistol, not a rifle. By the end of the day, seventy five per cent of officers had been killed, compared with fifty per cent of men. The three colonels of the four Geordie regiments were dead, the fourth badly wounded.
Percy was shot in the face, and later buried in a huge crater after a mine had exploded. He was found four days later, still alive – just – and he grabbed a helmet lying on the ground to drink from it and quench his terrible thirst. The helmet was full of chemicals and poisons from the battlefield, and Percy ruined his insides. The face wound healed, he returned to the battlefield, and unlike so many of the men who endured the hell of the First World War, he survived to see peace.
The day that 60,000 brave young men died on the Somme was the worst day of that terrible war. Waterloo was accounted a bloody battle, but Wellington lost only 25 per cent of his army, 8458 men. El Alamein, an eleven- day battle, cost 1,125 men a day, while on D-Day the British and Canadian casualties cost 4000 men.
So my step-grandmother, living in a north country village, had seen all the young men march proudly through the streets on their way to fight for their country, trumpets blowing, banners flying, girls throwing flowers. Now all the houses had their blinds down, mourning their sons and husbands, brothers and fiancees, friends and neighbours. It wasn’t the same back in Germany. The Germans had not been slaughtered. For every seven British soldiers killed, they had lost one, from a much bigger population.
Paddy Kennedy, a soldier with the Manchester Pals, another regiment which was destroyed that day, helped to take a German post at Montauban. In the German trenches he found a small black frightened kitten, the pet of a dead soldier. Feeling sorry for it, he fastened it inside his pack, and took it with him. During lulls in the fighting he took it out and played with it. A few days later, he gave it to the company cooks as a mascot, and got on with his job… the following year, the kitten, now known as Nigger, went back to England hidden in a soldier’s battledress.
The young man took it home on leave to his family in Rochdale, and left it with them. He was killed at Passchendale shortly afterwards. But Paddy Kennedy, who’d gone back home to Manchester after the war, had not forgotten the cat. Throughout the twenties he went to visit Nigger at Rochdale.
This reminded me of the Dogs Cage on the beach at Dover. As the soldiers arrived back from Dunkirk in 1940, hungry, wounded, shattered, they brought with them dogs and puppies which they’d rescued from the deserted, burning town of Dunkirk. Since rabies could not be allowed to invade the British Isles, the commanding officer at Dover organised for the dogs to be labelled, and their addresses recorded; and after six months in quarantine, these French dogs were delivered to their rescuer’s homes around the British Isles. I suppose that by then they knew what ‘sit,’ and ‘stay’ were in English…
These loving actions by soldiers in the midst of fighting, somehow ease the heart when one reads the horror of those battles. So when I think of Percy and all those other wonderful young men, whose deaths wring the heart – “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die”, I think of their kindness and courage and decency – and try not to think of the warmongers who forced war on the world, of the devastated people in Belgium and Northern France, who suffered atrocities perpetrated by Germans, not Nazis, who conveniently took the blame for similar atrocities in the next world war.
When some of those young men rescued the frightened black kitten, they lovingly gave it a name which is now anathematized in some parts of the western world, and I wonder what those brave young men would have thought of our world now.
Of the million white slaves in the Middle East, some would have been the ancestors of these soldiers, some would have ancestors who slaved in the mines, others impressed in the navy for seven years, and many more who scurried up and down stairs as over-worked and underpaid servants. Most soldiers would have come from families whose members had always been poor, overworked, and downtrodden throughout the history of their country.
But they loved it, and wanted to protect it. They didn’t want to impose it and their way of life, and their culture on others. And they died trying to save it.
The title comes from Rupert Brooke’s famous (and now unfashionable) poem, The Soldier.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
I’m just emerging from a bad bout of ‘flu, so apologies to all the wonderful friends who commented on my previous post, and I will be getting back to you. I also had a posse of zoo researchers coming to dinner, before they began their nights research into our almost extinct species of frogs and lizards in the forest.
I wondered how I was going to put on dinner for five – the spirit was willing but the body was weak, so I turned to my newly acquired slow cooker for rescue. Brilliant! Into the pre-heated container went chopped onion, garlic, a stick of chopped celery, chopped mushrooms, and a few rashers of chopped bacon. Then a layer of chopped chicken- good sized chunks – I used boneless thighs and tenderloins, then smothered the whole with a tin of condensed chicken soup plus a chicken stock cube and hot stock, plus a liberal helping of cream, and salt and pepper.
I put the lid on, and it cooked for four hours on high. Then I added a packet of lasagne, made sure the liquid covered it, by adding a bit more hot chicken stock, and continued cooking for another hour and a bit till the pasta was ready. With a green salad, and freshly grated parmesan, it was a doddle.
And for an easy pudding, I whipped up cream, added the same amount of apricot yogurt, plus succulent chopped peaches I’d freezed in summer, some sugar, and a tin of mandarin oranges to decorate the top. In a crystal dish, it looked good enough to eat!
Food for Thought
Lord, Thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget Thee, do not Thou forget me.
The prayer of Cavalier, Sir Jacob Astley before the Battle of Edgehill 1642
32 responses to “The Soldiers – ‘A Richer Dust Concealed’”
❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️. Valerie, thanks for never being afraid to state the truth, be it possibly ever so unpopular. Your post reminds me of several book series that I love by Charles Todd and that deal with WWI and its effects, the Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford series. They too leave me with a mixture of deep sadness and pride and I believe that the lack of knowledge about history is at least partially to blame for where we find ourselves today, in a world of “men without chests” and lives without honor or regard for those who gave us the freedoms too many seem inclined to use for evil, to hurt and take from others.
Much love to you both,
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Janet, another lovely response to my story… now I’ve managed to reply to your last in my last post, you will know how much I appreciate what you say. This comment is no different, and I share your sadness and pride, and a feeling that a lack of knowledge about history has much to do with the intolerance and ignorance that seems to fuel so much of what is happening today.
All we can do is to try to be a small still centre…
Much love to you too, from us both – we always read your comments to each other XXx
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We can only do our best and you do such a wonderful job of it. ❤ (So does that other guy, albeit in a very different way.) 🙂
Valerie, such an evocative story. You told it beautifully. We do live in a different day. Thanks for sharing your story.
Thank you so much Marsha, good to know you enjoyed the history… the past still matters if we want to understand the present !!
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Yes, and there are so many perspectives to it. I enjoyed hearing the personal perspective that you tell, Valerie. As a history consultant, I used to work with a group called Stories of Service. They teamed up a veteran, student, and outside adult to create a five minute video telling the veteran’s story. These videos made their way into museums, veteran’s homes and schools. The project taught students more than the skills of interviewing and video technology. They forged friendships with heroes. Every story is worth so much. Thanks again for sharing, Valerie. 🙂
Thank you Marsha so much so your reply – I loved the sound of the work you do .. and love people’s stories… I once read the accounts of slaves, recorded during the Depression by students who were given the work of recording these histories in order to keep them occupied. If you’re interested, I spent 2018 on my blog telling my story from watching the Battle of Britain onwards through to living at Belsen just after the war, Malaya during the Emergency, Hongkong during the riots and cultural revolution, and extraordinary adventures when I emigrated to NZ with my two small children.
‘Lest we forget’. You tell the stories so well and I didn’t know about the animals. The sparks of kindness and hope. We have to fully know where we’ve been to craft where we are going, don’t we?
I wish you better and hope your back has recovered now?
Your dinner was inspired and I too, love my slow cooker.
Much love flowing to you both. Xx ❤️❤️
Lovely to read your messages .. the stories of animals bring such hope, as you say…
Back almost back to normal, now thank goodness… and thank you…
You’re a slow cooker fan, too, are you ! I’m beginning to explore all sorts of options now I’ve discovered how easy ( and economical) – and warms up the kitchen instead of switching on the heater !!
Much love to you XXX
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I am so glad you are almost back to normal, Valerie. ❤ Slow cookers are great and your message has just reminded me that I need to get mine going this morning. Thank you. ❤ xxx
How I love your compassionate and wise words – have followed your columns, articles and news items over many years and feel so privileged to be able to acknowledge the enjoyment you bring.
I can’t tell you how much pleasure it gives me when readers from the past contact me – thank you so much, I simply loved hearing from you…
Ness Valley is such a familiar name to me, since I loved at Ararimu years ago, and later when Jo Seager lived there…
( I miss her restaurant ) So beautiful all round there…
Very warm wishes to you, Valerie
Thank you for providing another view of history, and also for introducing me to the word anathematized.
Good to hear from you… anathematized is a wonderful word isn’t it…
I came across it when reading about the the corrupt Second Council of Constantinople in 553 which ‘anathematized’ the belief in reincarnation
which everyone believed in until then, when they were forbidden to!!!
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I’m racing off to look up the word “doddle”….
Oh Jadi, I’m so glad to see your smiling face, I have visited your blog so many times, and been unable to master the technology required to break through the barriers dividing you from technological incompetents like me.
Is there a simple way to actually leave a like or a comment????
Dearest val How do you do it ? Your memory for dates etc is amazing As you may remember, my grandfather was in the front line at the battle of the Somme , strangely Henry was also in Somme company at Sandhurst I am lucky enough to have my wonderful grandfathers medals, belt and other things that he gave me, plus an abiding memory of his time there, watching his whole platoon blow up in front of his eyes. His beloved horses desperately injured , and having to operate, so they could breath, saddles left on horses, for days and weeks, so that when they came off , so did the Skin!, I was always amazed how he survived such horrors, and yet remained the kind and compassionate man he was, I named Henry after him, because I have never known a better human being. My week at Henry’s was great, seeing the boys, canoeing, show jumping with the pony club, and being able to ride out with them and Henry. Very brave of you to have people to dinner with your back problems, I have not had anyone over for a meal for such a long time, have almost forgotten how! The physio discovered Henry’s back problems were a disc at the top of his neck and and a cracked rib, being him he is fretting to get back to training ASAP. This is just a quick one as I wanted to reply to your wonderful description of the First World War, and mine to it! Lots of love Anne xxx
Sent from my iPad
What a lovely surprise to find your comment here … and the stories about your grandfather – fascinating. , The heartbreak and the tragedy of the horses was so terrible… and all through history… Waterloo, even the horses on board the Spanish Armada who all drowned… what we have done to horses is unspeakable…
I remember your darling grandfather at your wedding, he was sitting in the front pew next to Rose your cook, and asking her about everyone in what he thought was a whisper, but which was actually a very loud voice!
And then afterwards, dinner at the Cavalry Club, with your father still struggling with tears at having said goodbye to you, your stepmother struggling with her eye operation, your grandfather, exhausted and silent, Rose, grumpy and silent, Vikki tired and tearful and me, blotto with a hideous cold!
Replying to your letter, soonest XXXXXXXXXXXX
I do love your posts, Valerie, but haven’t got round to saying so before!
Dear Dorothy – I love your comment! – thank you, it’s lovely when readers tell me they appreciate my writing –
best wishes, Valerie
I’m so relieved to hear you’re on the other side of the flu. And that it was “only” the flu. Your silence worried me.
Your step-grandfather was a hero. I’m glad he lived through it, but oh, what did it do to him emotionally?
As I read the statistics in this post, my mind went to individual losses, the mothers, wives and children. It wrenches my heart when imagine the overweening grief represented by each of those numbers.
I also thought a lot about my dad, a purple heart recipient in WWII. His motto was “My country, right or wrong.” I wonder if he’d still be saying that today.
Thank you for another magnificent bit of history.
Summer heat and humidity is upon us. I’m thankful for air conditioning. This morning began with working on another novel and mile-long swim. 😀
Shalom, love and more love to the two of you,
Lovely to hear from you and read your comment…yes, I think my grandfather and all those who fought in WW1 were heroes.
We’ve just been reading Eugene Sledge’s heartbreaking classic about fighting the Japanese in the Pacific War, and I have to say that every Marine in that war was a hero too… the horror of it is gob-smacking..
And yes, the grief of those left behind is an overwhelming thought – usually women who had to pick up the pieces and hold their families together often in great hardship….
My country right or wrong has always been a somewhat dubious slogan…especially in places like Nazi Germany!!! and these days in a shrinking global village still more controversial…
I slightly envy you your challenges of summer, we are in the cold and rainy and strong winds part of the year… when we understand the naming of the roaring forties, furious fifties and screaming sixties…
Enjoy your writing and your swimming – he sends his love and to tell you I’m working him like a slave ( not)
Love from us both,
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Your words always move me & you never fail to find the exact spot on the target which is meaningful, thoughtful & oh so pertinent when all around there is so much waffle, rubbish & plain untruths being written & shouted at us all. Thank you so much! It’s like a drink of pure clean water! Please continue to get well!!
Dearest Angela, your words always give me so much pleasure and encouragement. It’s strange how difficult it is at the moment to avoid feeling we are part of the strange maelstrom which is engulfing the world at the moment, isn’t it.
Thank you for your lovely words, which help to make me feel I’m not a bigoted, cisgender, transphobic white privileged Karen !!!
Have to learn a new vocabulary all the time – woke, cisgender, boomer etc etc !
There’s a wonderful column in The Times ‘The Anger Train is out of Control’ by Janice Turner, which you might enjoy…
Much love, Valerie
Angela, I should have written The Righteous Anger Train is out of Control..
My Grandad was also killed at the Somme. He was only 26 and left my Nan with three young children and very little help. Fortunately she did marry again and my Mum says he was the best of step fathers. We went to see his grave in Albert France a few years ago. It was a beautiful quite spot and of course the graves are kept in immaculate order
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Thank you, Margot, for your memories… it’s amazing how such stories connect us so powerfully with that moment so long ago… did you read my friend Anne’s comment about her grandfather at the Somme and the tragedy of the horses…
It must have been wonderful to visit your grand father’s grave… and how fortunate your grandmother was to find another man to love and marry… there were so many unmarried women and widows left then, in a society with a shortage of men after the carnage of that war…
Lovely to hear from you, XXX
“Lest we forget”. As I read my heart swelled with pride, my soul cried, and my thoughts went to my grandparents. My grandfather fought in WWI in the trenches. He was a very decorated machine gunner. Keep that in mind….at Christmas as the water filled the trench and the snow came down, one the men in the trench with him started a Christmas carol…soon everyone around was softly singing with Granddad and his fellow soldiers. In a lull in the singing, across the way, in a different language but the very same tune they had just finished was ‘real people’ who worship and believe in the same God, and love Christ. Grand-Dad was so saddened by all this (he was only 17) that he asked for and received a transfer to be in the mess hall as a COOK! He was delighted most relieved to be giving nourishment to others instead of death.
Thank you for the story of your family and those lovely boys and men.
What a marvellous comment, I know that story about Christmas 1914 so well, and have a book about it. Fancy your grandfather being part of such a well documented and historic event. Sadly it was forbidden to ‘fraternise ‘ like that again for fear it would blunt the will of troops to fight – as it did your grandfather.
Funnily enough my step-grandfather volunteered to become a machine gunner after he was wounded, as he thought he’d have a better chance of survival in the machine gun corps instead of plodding into battle in the PBI, .- Poor Bloody Infantry as they were known for obvious reasons!!!!
Your grandparents must have been English were they, as I know the American troops didn’t start arriving in France until April 1917 – they were lucky to have only six months in the war, instead of four years, and I think they missed out on the mud and trenches, it being summer !
Thank you for your family’s story – everyone’s memories are so touching..
Linda, yuo might find this link interesting !!! XXX
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