Category Archives: world war one

Food, fear and films

 

100_0087Village life takes ingenuity in a tight spot, and stamina – plenty of it!  These are the times that test men’s souls! Well, we haven’t actually had any chicken stealing like Mr Woodhouse in ‘Emma’, but life has been pretty hairy in our neck of the woods in the last few days.

Where do I start? We are a quiet law-abiding community, we look out for our neighbours, share our garden goodies, swap cuttings and seeds, and admire each other’s grandchildren. Our greatest excitement is the weekly testing of the fire alarm by the volunteer firemen.  But the other night the peace of the four hundred law-abiding souls was rudely shattered. A dog began barking as dusk fell, and continued without end for the rest of the night. I woke every hour of the night, and heard all the other dogs joining the chorus. I overslept and arose bleary – eyed, and then had to rush to attend a veteran’s memorial service in the graveyard.

I came away somewhat disgruntled that the officiating clergywoman should in-appropriately refer to the Somme as a romantic name. The Battle of the Somme was the day that the British Army lost 20 per cent of its men – 60,000 killed or wounded on one day in France, my step- grandfather being one of the badly wounded. No! Not romantic. Naturally I aired my disgruntlement back at home, and felt all the better for it! So I was quite gruntled when the phone went later that afternoon and a friend rang to see how my husband was; and since his wife was overseas, I invited him for supper that night – three hours later in fact..

Putting down the phone, my mind raced through the possibilities. We were going to have cauliflower cheese, but could I give this to a man accustomed to gourmet cooking from his talented wife? I thought of various alternatives, but I was always missing one vital ingredient. Cauliflower cheese it would have to be! We were already having Brussels sprouts and carrots with it, and toasted almonds sprinkled over the cauliflower, so I added some chopped and baked golden kumara – crisp and crunchy on the outside – soft and sweet inside. Washed down with pinot gris.

With some pumpkin soup from lunch, thinned with a little cream and jazzed up with a sprinkling of coriander, served in little gold rimmed coffee cups before we sat down, it seemed a reasonable meal, topped off with  hot chocolate sauce poured over locally made coffee ice-cream. No-one wanted coffee after that, but smoky lapsang souchong tea went down well.

Later that night, I heard the dog again. I thought: I cannot face another night worrying about it. So I jumped in the car and scouted round the neighbourhood in the dark. In the next street, I found a frantic pit- bull terrier on the loose – pacing back and forth and barking ferociously and fearfully outside a darkened house. We have no hedges or fences, just grass flowing out onto the pavement. So there he was, and I was available to him…

I went next door, where I could see a light on, knowing the people there, and hoping the resourceful man of the house had a solution. But they were visitors, who’d borrowed the house, and were dreading another night of torment. So it was up to me! The husband told me the dog had been alone for two days, was dangerous and and had frightened two children, so I revved off back home to deprive my husband of six pork sausages sitting in the fridge for him to enjoy the next day.

Back at the house, Daphne, a friend living across the road from the deserted house, was talking to the other neighbours. When I got out of the car, she hurried across, sounding so relieved to see me that she made me feel as if I was the US Cavalry. She warned me to be careful. The poor dog had now retreated to the back of the house, so while I strewed sausages around the front lawn, she went to get some water to fill his empty bowl.

Home, and a glorious peace settled back across the cottages and gardens, the only sounds the restless sea surging onto the rocks and an owl calling. So I rang the lovely Daphne, and she told me the renters had come back not long after. I tried not to regret the sausages, and hoped the dog had managed to eat them all before his somewhat callous-seeming owners returned. (There are dark rumours that they are on drugs and are up to no good!) But a good night’s sleep was apparently had by us all, both the (slightly) wicked and the (mostly) virtuous .

After all this mayhem I took myself off the cinema in the next village in the morning, as I feared the film might go off before I’d seen it -‘Performance’ – about a quartet, set in a snowy and romantic-looking  New York. When one member of the quartet has a crisis, all the others go to pieces, with all their repressed emotions and frustrations about their lives welling up. The famous quartet is in danger of dis-integrating, until they finally put their art before their distress, and play the glorious Beethoven Violin Quartet No 14 Opus 131, music which reverberates through the whole film.

A simple story, and I was glad I hadn’t read the dreary reviews of it before I saw it, as they were all uniformly patronising. So, ignorant of the fact that apparently the film had so many fatal flaws, I loved every minute, and came out walking on air, feeling joyful that art had triumphed over all!

This was thirty six hours in the life of our village for me – mundane and busy – no mystery or profound or significant events… just the daily round and common task. A spiritual teacher once said to me that our spiritual destiny is to be in the right place at the right time. So I have to accept that however mundane, this is my destiny these days – right place – right time… food for friends, fearful dogs, and flawed, enjoyable films.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Kumara is the New Zealand equivalent of sweet potatoes, and I love the golden ones best. I cut them to the size of a walnut, this time – normally I’d have them bigger. They were then parboiled, and when the water had been drained off, the kumara was slammed around the saucepan and flour sprinkled over them. So with a rough surface covered in flour, hot oil spooned over them and quickly baked in a hot oven, they were crisp and tasty – the crunchiness was just the texture we needed with the soft cauliflower and brussels sprouts.

Food for Thought

I don’t know where this comes from:

Weak people revenge, strong people forgive, intelligent people ignore.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under animals/pets, battle of somme, british soldiers, cookery/recipes, great days, humour, life/style, spiritual, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, village life, world war one

Peace or Patriotism?

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Is patriotism enough? Nurse Edith Cavell first raised the question before she was shot by the Germans for treason  in 1916. She was an English nurse, matron of a Belgian hospital when the Germans invaded Belgium on their way to invade France. On the outbreak of war, her hospital was immediately designated a Red Cross hospital. For the next two years she not only carried on with the work of the hospital, but rescued and nursed back to health wounded British and French soldiers, who were then helped to return to their countries. She also nursed wounded German soldiers. She knew that she was in danger, but she said: “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.”

The Germans arrested her, and court martialled her for treason. Under German law she was sentenced to death. From this perspective, it seems strange that an English nurse working for a Belgian hospital in a country which the Germans had invaded, breaking their treaty of neutrality, and then ravaging the country, shooting whole villages, burning ancient cities, should have been expected to be loyal to these invaders! The Germans said that they had treated her fairly.

She raised the question on patriotism just before her execution, when she actually said that: “Patriotism is not enough”.

This phrase has been in my mind, as this country prepares for the most solemn day in its calendar – ANZAC day – a day of national mourning and unity which it shares with Australia. It commemorates the Battle of Gallipoli on Turkish soil. It was a disaster for the Allies, who lost 21,555 British soldiers, 10,000 French, 8,709 Australian and 2,721 NZ soldiers. Winston Churchill has always been blamed for it, but from the beginning of his idea, and the actual carrying out of it, something now called ‘mission drift “ occurred, in which the original idea got lost in  more ambitious schemes, but without the extra men and supplies needed for these  ambitions.

In the forty three years that I’ve lived in NZ, I’ve seen a revived connection with these ceremonies, as more people remember – though they may not understand – their history, and the heroism of their ancestors. At my age, I heard firsthand the memories of my great-uncle and grandfathers who were in the navy and the army in the First World War, so it doesn’t seem almost a hundred years ago to me.

And one of the things that always saddens me about these ceremonies and rituals in my adopted country, is that this day also becomes an opportunity for some to bash the British in their sermons and newspaper articles. So it tends to be forgotten that the British and the French lost great numbers of young men in this battle too… and that they always valued the great qualities of the NZ and Australian fighting men. This is what is called chauvinism… the dictionary defines it as:militant devotion to and glorification of one’s country; fanatical patriotism’.

And it happens all around the world, in some countries more than others. On the other hand, there are also many people around the world who have responded to Edith Cavell’s insight, and can see that patriotism is not enough. She also said:  “I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” She was not just a brave woman, but a deeply spiritual one, and had reached insights that many of us are still struggling towards.

Another one who did have those insights was the officer commanding the Turks at Gallipoli. Fourteen years after the Gallipoli campaign, some of the mothers of the soldiers who had died on the Turkish peninsula, wrote to the President of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, asking for permission to visit the graves of their sons. Kemal Ataturk had been that commander at Gallipoli, and he sat down and wrote these words to the grieving mothers:

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… You the mothers, who sent their sons to faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

I can never read these beautiful words without the tears welling in my eyes….

Kemal Ataturk was the great visionary leader who transformed Turkey into an enlightened and free country back in the twenties and thirties. In two years, his drive and vision raised literacy from ten per cent to seventy per cent, and he gave women all the freedoms that men enjoyed. His early death from cirrhosis of the liver was a tragedy for Turkey and for the world.

His foreign policy was simple: ‘Peace at home. Peace in the world’. These are the words and thoughts that rise above mere patriotism, and to use those lovely old words from the Anglican prayer book are what could bring us: “peace in our time”.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

The cemetery with the war memorial in our village lies on one side of the tiny peninsula where we live. It looks out to sea. The other side of the road, we look out to sea in the opposite direction. So since everyone gathers in the road outside our house before entering the cemetery, we always end up having friends in for coffee when the service is over.

The cake I’m doing for this occasion is an easy apple cake – I seem to have dozens of different apple cakes – and this one is quite a chewy one. Peel and slice five apples, mix with a cup of brown sugar and put to stand for 15 minutes. Mix together a cup of self raising flour, a teasp of ground cinnamon, half a cup of oil, a beaten egg, half a cup of chopped dates (I often leave this out) and three quarters of a cup of chopped walnuts. Stir in the apples and sugar. Tip into a greased and floured tin and gently press the mixture down.  Bake in a 160 degree oven for one and a half to two hours, and cool before turning out. I often sprinkle sugar over the top, and add a dash of vanilla to the mixture.

Sometimes I serve it with stiff whipped cream, and make it the day before, as it matures deliciously.

Food for Thought

Everyone has within him something precious that is in no-one else. But this precious something in a man is revealed to him only if he truly believes his strongest feeling, his central wish, that in him stirs his inmost being.

Martin Buber  1878 -1965 Austrian born Jewish philosopher

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Filed under great days, history, military history, peace, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, village life, world war one

A Much Maligned Hero

If there is a list of less than attractive characteristics, my hero is on that list – alcoholic, psychopath, megalomaniac, autistic, faults and addictions, these labels are all heaped upon his well-known head.

He didn’t have an easy start in life – his American mother, a famous society beauty was too busy socialising to spend any time with him, or visit him at school; while his father was too busy with his brilliant career, and finally too embittered by his terminal illness to have any time for him at all, and never once visited him when he was packed off to boarding school at seven. His mother required him to write to her in French and frequently returned his letters unread, saying his French was so appalling that she had no intention of reading them. The wounds and scars from beatings on his back, administered by a sadistic head master between the ages of seven and nine, finally convinced his parents to send him to another school.

The one person who loved him was his nanny. He loved her  until the day she died, and was with her at her death-bed. At his schools, he was unpunctual and unconventional, and no-one had a good word to say for him. He failed his military exams, and when he finally made it into Sandhurst was broken-hearted that his father had died before seeing that at last he had succeeded in achieving something. Because his father had died young, he always felt that he would too, and since he always felt that he had come into the world to fulfill some great purpose, he felt he didn’t have a lot of time, and had to hurry!

He had a brief and brilliant military career, earning medals and commendations, and took part in the last great cavalry charge in history at Omdurman against sixty thousand dervishes. Leaving the army he became a newspaper correspondent, and while reporting on the Boer War was captured and had a famous escape, which brought him to the notice of the world. Back in England he went into politics like his father, and having by then educated himself with massive reading programmes, and developed a great gift for words and oratory, he was very successful. In the First World War he unfairly took the blame for the disaster at Gallipoli, though he was merely one of a group of people who’d been behind the scheme, there being no scope for dictatorship by second ranking politicians in the English constitution.

His career apparently ruined, he went and fought in the front line on the Western Front. After the war, returning to politics with some success, he was then vilified and disliked by most people, because he warned about the inevitable war with Germany all through the thirties. While in politics, he had worked for an old age pension for every-one and for better working hours for men and women. With an intelligent powerful wife like Clementine, he supported votes for women, but not the methods of the Suffragettes, especially after one militant feminist tried to push him under a train, and his wife only just pulled him back in time. During this time in the wilderness he supported his family by writing and lecturing.

When war was declared in 1939, no-one in politics really wanted him, from the King down, in spite of him having been proved right about Hitler and the dangers of appeasement. But the people did, and he became prime minster at the time of the greatest danger England or the world had ever faced.

For the next two years, Winston Churchill held the free world together. He not only united his country in the face of fighting a war they could well lose, against a foe whose brutality and inhumanity had already been demonstrated all over a devastated Europe, but he sustained the people in all the defeated countries. They risked their lives to listen secretly to his speeches on their radios, knowing that if they were discovered they would be shot.

“There goes the British Empire”, the American Ambassador heard a workman say as Churchill conducted him around the smoking ruins of a city hit by the Luftwaffe the night before. He was there to report to President Roosevelt on whether he thought the British were going to be able to stand up to Hitler. When the US finally came into the war when Japan attacked them, Churchill knew that with America’s might they could win the war, however long it took. But for two years he alone bore the whole burden of the war on his shoulders, and people waited to hear his speeches to raise their spirits and inspire them to hope even in such hopeless circumstances.

When night after night, London and all England’s other great cities were bombed, its citizens sometimes buried in mass graves, as in Coventry, and irreplaceable architecture, homes and churches destroyed, Churchill’s words kept the nation and the free world going.

People who worked with him were devoted to him. He was very affectionate and treated his staff like his family, inviting them to share all his family meals  when they came to stay every weekend, while Churchill worked – usually until 3am. They were part of the family, playing cards, croquet and going for walks. He had a wicked wit.  When Lady Astor said to him at dinner, “If I was your wife, I’d put cyanide in your coffee,”  he famously replied, “If you were my wife I’d drink it”. When Bernard Shaw sent him a ticket for the first night of Pygmalion, writing : “Bring a friend if you have one”, Churchill replied: “ Cannot make first night, but will come to second, if you have one”. He described an opponent (fairly accurately) as ‘a modest little man, but then he has much to be modest about!’

His capacity for work was prodigious as was his eye for detail … he sent a memo to the top navy, army and air force men telling them to give dignified names to operations, saying if a mother heard that her son had been killed in a battle with a silly name like ‘Operation bunny hop’, it would diminish the dignity of her dead child. He began every memo to his staff:  “ Pray… could you …etc.”  He cared about people, and was devoted to his wife and family after his miserable childhood. He was a talented painter as well as writer, who won the Nobel prize for literature for his four volume series  ‘The History of The English Speaking Peoples.’

He was often inconsiderate and sometimes arrogant, but never mis-used power, his proudest boast being that he was the servant of Parliament and the English people who elected him.  And when his party lost the election as the war was ending – in spite of the love the people had for him – he told every-one that they had to respect the will of the people.

And in old age he could still laugh at himself … when a nervous MP whispered to him that his fly buttons were undone, he replied ‘Never fear, the dead bird never leaves the nest.’ His beloved private secretary Sir John Colville said that he never saw him drunk, though champagne and brandy were his favourite tipples. And as for the other labels … I’m sure he’d rebut them with that old English saying; ‘ Sticks and stones  may break my bones, but words will never hurt me…’

What a man!  I think he’d prefer: What an Englishman! And yet he was deeply proud of his American ancestry too. When his dark- eyed, dark- haired mother died, it was reported that her face bore: “all the hallmarks of a native American inheritance”. His descent from another great Englishman and soldier, John, Duke of Marlborough, was the inspiration for his belief in his destiny … which could be summed up quite briefly – to save the free world.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Hot summer days, and heaps of fresh vegetables – many from the gardens of my lovely neighbours. So today, it’s crudités with that lovely mayonnaise made with my new mixing stick in the last recipe.  Fresh batch today with garlic added, making it aoli, to be eaten with hard boiled free range eggs, fresh raw baby carrots, tomatoes warm from the sun, new potatoes from a neighbour’s garden – cooked with fresh mint –  cucumber and a jar of artichokes. We’ll start with some sweet corn dripping with hot butter, the corn almost pearly, it’s so fresh … fresh purple plums with that dusty bloom on their skins to end with … a summer feast ….

Food for Thought

History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience. The only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.

Extract from his tribute to his old opponent Austen Chamberlain on his death,  by Winston S Churchill 1874 -1965  politician, writer, painter, visionary leader

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Filed under cookery/recipes, great days, history, humour, life/style, military history, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, village life, world war one, world war two

Rambling through Youtube

I had the haunting Irish tune of ‘Down By The Salley Gardens’ on my mind and turned to lovely Youtube. I did the rounds, Kathleen Ferrier- sublime, Orla Fallon – beautiful,  Marianne Faithful – shallow, and Clannad, performing authentically in an Irish pub – haunting, wistful, and satisfying. And as I flitted from one version to the next, I stumbled on William Butler Yeats himself, reading his poem (though it was based on an old Irish folk song).

It was magic listening to the real voice of the poet, and reminded me what a gift recording is. I never had much time for Yeats in his monocle and black cloak, who left Wilfred Owen out of the Oxford Book of English Verse because he suspected Owen of pacifist sympathies. Yeats, in his fifties, didn’t fight in the war, but Owen was in the trenches for the whole four years, writing the finest war poetry, and dying in an attack across a canal in the last week of the war. So Yeats, born in 1865, doesn’t do it for me, but to hear his voice, echoing across historic centuries was still a thrill.

On the sidebar, there was Virginia Woolf reading on the BBC in 1939, a year before she walked into the river, and never came back. It’s the only recording we have of her. I clicked – of course – and listened to this wonderful voice reading her thoughts on words, entranced as her imagination soared and she opened new worlds of ideas. Her beautiful diction and resonant tones gave an idea of the layers of meaning and perception that she applied to life and art.

Then Alan Rickman showed up at the side, reading Shakespeare’s sonnets. Hearing  that mellifluous voice, reading the cadences of Shakespeare’s phrases and innermost thoughts was so moving. But since Harry Potter is never far from us these days, there was Rickman also in his role as Severus Snape. And once hooked into the world of Harry Potter, I couldn’t go past Emma Thompson as Sybil Trelawny in a scene which has never been shown, as it was cut. Shame. I laughed till the tears ran down my face as she tried to eat her meal in a state of total panic and confusion – doesn’t sound funny, I know, but you haven’t seen it.

I was watching, of course, a master, as were Rickman, Woolf and Yeats. Watching or hearing a master is an experience which stirs the soul. Sitting at a concert of Joan Sutherland , every time she came on stage and that glorious sound rang out, the tears just rolled down my cheeks. Listening to Yehudi Menuhin was like entering a mysterious world of spirit, and sitting motionless, holding my breath, as Kathleen Battle, in black with a cyclamen pink stole about fifteen feet long, sang to a packed hall of spellbound concertgoers is one of my treasured memories.

Masters reveal a world of universal connections, and seeing a Leonardo or a Michelangelo takes us into that same world of universal values of beauty and truth. But one of the favourite books on my shelf is a collection of sonnets to the woman he loved, by Michelangelo, and I love them precisely because he was n’t a great poet, as he was a great artist. In his poetry he shows the side of him that struggles with the same ordinariness – or perhaps I mean common humanity – as the rest of us. As an amateur poet, he is exposed in these poems, while in the mastery of his art, it’s his greatness that we see.

So while I am awed by, and grateful for mastery, there is something very beautiful about amateurishness. Many years ago, on New Year’s Eve at a party in Somerset, I had struggled all evening to look as though I was having fun with a group of people I didn’t know, and had nothing in common with. I was staying with friends, who had taken me with them. As midnight approached, we all gathered in the main hall of the castle, and a man asked if there was anyone who could accompany him on the piano. With no takers, he said he’d sing anyway. I cringed, wondering if he would embarass himself.

And so began one of the loveliest moments of my life. He sang ‘My love is like a red, red rose’. Not professionally, but honestly and lovingly. All our egos which had jostled and struggled to keep their ends up all evening stood transfixed. A long silence followed the ending of the song, and there was a softness in the room and on the faces of everyone. The evening changed. His courage in exposing himself to us all had somehow broken the barriers that separated us. Warmth and kindness showed in every face.

I’ve heard another song sung like that in a voice that had no training, and nothing to recommend it except sweetness of tone, and sweetness of character. And it was just as moving. So while mastery is a sublime experience, the love and honesty that we lesser mortals have to offer, is just as precious in its own way.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

If we’re having something ordinary to eat, and I need to give it a bit of a lift, I make our family favourite, culled years ago, from the pages of Elizabeth David. I only used to make it at Christmas, for the adults, but one memorable year, the grandchildren discovered it, and gobbled it up under the affronted and greedy gaze of all the grownups. So now I make about three dishes of it, and there is a great big potato peeling bee on Christmas Eve, and some of the children eschew the turkey, plumping for the potatoes, and only moving on to the rest of the feast later. If there’s any left over, they eat them for breakfast! So I always make it now when the family come, and often for dressy meals with friends.

All you need are potatoes, garlic and lashings of cream. I use Agria potatoes, which mash well, and also in this dish, absorb the cream. Slice the potatoes thinly into rounds, and pat them dry. Butter a shallowish baking dish, and layer the potatoes in, every now and then anointing the layers with salt and pepper, chopped garlic and a few knobs of butter. When the dish is nearly filled, dot the top with butter and pour in as much cream as you need to nearly cover the potatoes. Bake for an hour or more in a moderate oven. If the cream has dried up by the end, I pour more into the crevices, and put back in the oven for a few minutes. It can be cooked the day before and re-heated, but give it plenty of time. It’s delicious with any meal, and with a few vegetables is also a lovely vegetarian meal.

 

Food for Thought

Ad on Trademe: One toothpick with a FREE son included ( I’m sure there is some law which forbids me trafficking in humans, hence the toothpick)…being a teenager he requires large amounts of food (meat and candy mostly, despite the fridge being full of fruit and veg.) Uses power enough to run a small town ( computer, TV, PlayStation and assorted electrical gadgets as well as always leaving the fridge door open) Unfortunately he is short-sighted and unable to see unwashed dishes, grime, towels on the floor or skid marks. Requires 14 hours of sleep per day. Needs a soundproof room as he either slaughters pigs in there or plays heavy metal (sounds the same to me)

Don’t suppose he managed to get rid of him… there’s a glut of teenage boys like this, I suspect.

 

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Filed under cookery/recipes, culture, food, great days, history, life/style, literature, love, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, world war one

Young Men Walking to Their Death

Ninety- six years ago, my step-grandfather stepped out with thousands of other young men on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It was 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, the barbed wire cut by the bombardment also.

For a moment, they walked into the sudden silence, and then the German machine guns began to fire. The guns 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 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, 75 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 was 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 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 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 stupidity of the generals and politicians who sent them to die.

Do other families have their stories?

Food for Threadbare Gourmets.

Like the soldiers of most recent wars, when my military husband (first one) and I were down to the bare boards at the end of every month,( since we had married too young and didn’t get any allowances) we opened a tin of bully beef . If you’re really up against it and hungry too, this recipe is good value.

Fry a few onions in a little oil and butter. When soft, add some curry powder to taste, just enough to give some flavour, and fry a little more. Then add the chopped- up tin of bully beef, a few tomatoes if you have them, and a squeeze of tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce, pepper – salt if it needs it, or any spices you think would taste good. Stir-fry this altogether. Sometimes I might add a tin of baked beans to the mix. If it’s dry, add some water and a chicken bouillon cube and some flour to thicken it. Stir the flour into some water till the lumps have gone, before adding to the mix and cook for a few minutes. Serve hot with plenty of creamy mashed potatoes and some green vegetables. Not an elegant dish, but tasty and filling!

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

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