Tag Archives: battle of somme

The Soldiers – ‘A Richer Dust Concealed’

100_0584The 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

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Over the top

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A life – this is another instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs.

My step-grandfather had been a very successful business man, and a member of the Liberal Council, who in the 1945 general election, just failed to get elected to Parliament as a Liberal. “I nearly had them,” he would regretfully say to me, about the tough Geordies who he wooed in his homeland of Northumberland.

Shortly after the election, while on a lecture tour in the US, the stock market crashed, and he lost all his money. The small amount he managed to salvage when he returned, he invested in South African gold which gave him an opportunity to carry on an enjoyable, long-running and acrimonious correspondence on the immorality of apartheid with his agent in South Africa.

He had suffered from shell shock for many years after the Great War of 1914-18, and from the results of his dreadful injuries. He and his wife were both bitter about it, she because of what she said she had to put up with, he because he felt he got no sympathy or support. As a young officer in the Northumberland regiment which was the first to go over the top and step out towards the German lines on the morning of the Somme battle, he was an irresistible target in his breeches and officer’s Sam Browne belt and holster, and was shot in the face. There were 60,000 casualties on that first day of battle, and he was one of them. Sixty per cent of officers died that day, a much higher number than their men.

Recovered, a year later in the muddy martyrdom that was  Passchendaele, he was buried for two days in a bomb crater, and when dug out, grabbed a helmet filled with liquid, gulping it down to quench his thirst. It was filled with a noxious mix of battlefield poisons which damaged his insides, and he suffered the effects of this for the rest of his life.

He was famous in the family for being bloody-minded, and his injuries may have had something to do with this. One story about him was how after an argument at lunch with a few cronies, over the meaning of Magna Carta, he stormed off to the British Museum to check on the wording. On arrival, after finding his way through the labyrinths of the Museum, he discovered it was not on display. He wrote a biting letter to the Director, who replied saying the matter had been rectified.

Uncle Bill once again made a sortie to the Museum, and finding Magna Carta on a lectern, wrote another critical letter to the Director. The next time, when he visited to check on the situation, matters were only slightly improved. There was a translation now available at the side of the famous document, but Uncle Bill was still not satisfied. On his last visit, everything was finally arranged to his satisfaction, with the lectern lowered, a translation out, and a chair provided on which to sit and read the manuscript. In these days of tight security, it’s probably back in a safe.

In his retirement he went to every rugby match of note at Twickenham, and attended every cricket test at Lords or the Oval. Afterwards, often accompanied by his son and grandsons, he would call in on his wife for a generous high tea of toasted, buttered tea-cakes and rich fruit-cake, and everyone would be regaled with the stupidities and missed opportunities of the occasion, rugby or cricket.

He would also have taken the number of any bus which had been speeding, was late, had crashed the lights or had a conductor who was not up to speed. The family suspected that the local police station probably had a file especially for his complaints.

But it was still politics which would cause his ire to rise more quickly than any other subject. As a Liberal he was often at odds with the rest of the family who were Conservative to a man, so there were plenty of bones to pick over. I could never follow a word of these heated debates.

They also caused his wife to say after he had left: “now you know what he’s like… ” as if anyone was in any doubt. He and my father tolerated each other – my father once told me he was shallow, while Uncle Bill wrote to me when my father died saying he was his own worst enemy. This hurt me, whatever the truth of it.

When I was a late teenager and in my early twenties we still rendezvoused in London several times a year… we’d go to the Tate or the National Gallery, and then he’d take me for lunch to the famous Simpson’s- in -the- Strand where we feasted. Huge haunches of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or roast lamb were wheeled up to the table on silver domed trolleys and carved for us in the dining room which was unchanged since 1828. This was followed by delectable treacle pudding…

(P.G.Wodehouse loved Simpson’s too. A hundred years ago he wrote:’ Here, if he wishes, the Briton may … stupefy himself with food. The God of Fatted Plenty has the place under his protection. Its keynote is solid comfort. It is a pleasant, soothing, hearty place – a restful temple of food. No strident orchestra forces the diner to bolt beef in ragtime… There he sits, alone with his food, while white-robed priests, wheeling their smoking trucks, move to and fro, ever ready with fresh supplies.’)

Another favourite foodie place we visited was Charbonnel et Walker in Bond Street, chocolate shop extraordinaire since 1875, and favourite rendezvous for our family of chocoholics. In those days the truffles were numbered, and my memory is that my step-grandmother had a passion for number thirty-eight. I too loved number thirty-eight, and was mightily put out when my Christmas present was crystallised pineapple lumps instead of the truffles. We were in good company you could say, as other chocoholics who devoured these goodies included not just the Royal Family, but Noel Coward, Lauren Bacall, Sir John Gielgud and Princess Diana to name a few.

Every Christmas Uncle Bill gave the family a large, wooden box of Fortnum and Mason crystallised fruits laid out in rows on lacy paper doilies. Nothing since has tasted as delicious as those goodies. The exception to the crystallised fruits was when we lived in Malaya, when he instructed Harrods to send ten pounds of hand-made chocolates especially packed for the tropics in a very large tin, and lined with tin foil to protect them from ants, cockroaches and heat. Those were the days …

The best gift he ever gave us was for Christmas just before we went to Malaya. As well as both her parents, my stepmother had invited her brother and his wife, and her two nephews who she loved almost as much as her only son. Uncle Bill arrived first, full of enthusiasm and bringing with him two new inventions.

The first was a Black and Decker hedge cutter and he couldn’t wait to use it on our miles of privet hedge surrounding the front garden, the back garden, the vegetable garden and the grass tennis court. Alas, before long the air was blue with curses and smoke… he had chopped through the long electric cord dangling from a socket inside the kitchen window and that was the end of the hedge cutting project.

The other item he brought with him changed my life. It was a box of detergent called Tide which had just come on the market in England. It was the first heavy-duty synthetic detergent and had been invented in America, where it had been available since 1946.

Since it was my job to do the washing- up, and there were eleven of us for every meal that Christmas, this was a gift beyond price. I had always been squeamish. But now, instead of fishing around in revolting greasy water with a feeble mop-head on a stick, here was a magic white powder which dissolved the horrid mess and washed away all the nauseating aftermath of gravy, grub and grease! Hallelujah! Joy to the world, life had really changed for the exceedingly better.

And it was to change even more when we packed up our lives again six weeks later, and embarked on the adventure of Malaya during the Emergency – called the Emergency so that rubber planters could claim on insurance for their losses to the communist bandits, whereas insurers are absolved from paying out in a war!

More to come, as we used to write at the bottom of each page in the old days of print newspapers

Food for threadbare gourmets

Apples are back! it’s that time of year when the shops and way-wide stalls are loaded with freshly harvested apples-my favourite fruit. I love apple cakes and apple puddings, and this one is a goodie.

Peel a pound of Bramleys or Grannie Smiths apples and cook in a saucepan with 3 ounces of brown sugar and approximately 2 tablespoons of water. Simmer gently until soft, and then arrange this mix in the bottom of a greased baking dish.

In a mixing bowl, cream four ounces of soft butter and four ounces of caster sugar until pale and fluffy and then beat in two large eggs a little at a time. When all the egg is in, carefully and lightly fold in four ounces of ground almonds. Spread this mixture over the apples, and even out the surface with the back of a tablespoon.  Then bake on a middling shelf in the oven for exactly 1 hour.

This delicious pudding is good eaten warm or cold –  with cream. Once cooled, it will keep in the fridge for 3 or 4 days

 

Food for Thought

An oldie, but a goodie –An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

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