Monday, August 04, 2014

Oh, oh, oh, what a(n un)lovely war...

"I said we'll both be home in a week or two,

Me and Albert and Lord Kitchener’ll teach the Hun a thing or two…
I’m sure to return –
After me, do not yearn
And we will waltz together all our lives through…”
So falls in chords the attempt at an uplifting farewell salute - before a subtly affecting lift in still-funereal cadences. So ends not a real-life tale (technically) but Ralph McTell’s plangent “Maginot Waltz”, released on an album even a few years after his defining/occluding “Streets Of London” hit a poptastic number two.
And yet, while the words and accompaniment feel heartaching, so much more so are so many letters to be found in newspaper archives, daily sent home from the First World War front from willing and unwilling troops struggling to make sense of their localised place in a world going to newly-globalised war.
Whether they went out at first with unfounded optimism or otherwise.
Letters returned, bringing stoic survival updates or brutal condolences.
Packages were sent out. Some lives were saved - even one "charmed life" from North London protected by a parcel.
Yet so many many more were either ended or grievously damaged.
Just around the corner from home here in Woodside Park is Lodge Lane, where John Parr lived before somehow going off to fight aged 15 - and becoming the first British soldier killed in the First World War, just 17 days in, even if his family remained unaware for another ten months.
And only a little further away is Mill Hill East, three stations along on the Northern Line yet probably just as swift to run rather than depend on the occasional branch-line shuttle.
Rather more distant, mind, remain such experiences as those endured by Pte Parr, a Pte Boyd and other members of the Mill Hill-based Middlesex Regiment veteran - including, ex-Tottenham Hotspur footballer Walter Tull who would prove not only the first black player in top-flight English football but also a garlanded English soldier who died in action in France in March 1918.
Pte Boyd himself was described as enjoying that "charmed life” by a write-up in the Finchley Press on January 22 1915, though such “stuff” as luck back then was both relative and random…
The gift box sent by Princess Mary to Private Boyd, of the 4th Batt. Middlesex Regiment, has proved more than ordinarily acceptable. It saved Private Boyd’s life. A bullet went clean through it, but Private Boyd remained unhurt.
He has sent home the riddled gift box to his wife, who lives at 20 Elmfield-road, East Finchley.
Private Boyd is not seeing active service for the first time. He was in the 2nd Batt. Of the Middlesex Regiment through the South African War.
He was mentioned in dispatches, and received the Distinguished Medal for Spion Kop.
At the time, it was stated that his coolness under fire gave the impression that he bore a charmed life.
“Which,” says his wife happily, “appears to hold good in this instance.”
Private Boyd, though he had finished his time in the Army, being a man of fifty or so, as soon as the call for men came on the outbreak of war, rejoined at Mill Hill.
For a time he was passing from one station to another in England. This did not satisfy him. He had not joined for this.
He petitioned to be sent to the front, and his petition was acceded to.
He has been busy in the trenches ever since. His last home communication came in the shape of the box that saved his life.
The bullet passed through the box diagonally at one corner. He had it in the pocket of his tunic at the time, and it gives the impression that the shot was fired from the hip, as has been stated to be the custom among the Germans. It is a clean-drilled hole through the tin.
In the Transvaal Private Boyd was wounded on one occasion by a shell, a fragment of which he brought home – in his leg.
Though actively engaged during the whole time he has been out, Private Boyd has not only escaped injury, but has maintained – or had until his last communication – the best of health, which goes to show that a man is not too old at fifty for active service if he has the “stuff” in him.
The war declared 100 years ago ended not only with an estimated 9million dead - including a sadly-baffling 2,738 on the final morning, killed needlessly between a truce being agreed and its PR-timed announcement at 11 on 11/11 - but also nation states and empires fragmented.
The previously-imperious Austro-Hungarian dominion would end splintered, so many constituent parts of a once-mighty Mitteleuropa nowadays barely capturing wider attention but for occasional football finals appearances or summer flash-floods.
Iraq and Palestine as independent-ish entities have had [irony ahead] a fair few struggles since, while the Balkan ex-/im-plosions partly triggered by, well, Gavrilo Princip’s temperamental finger are only tentatively easing at least a little these days.
Scant comfort, and lessons, from such dim, distant conscription might be the reminder that – for all many people's many complaints about coalitions, oppositions and the way we live here now, Britain remains in a blessed place compared to so many others.
The trenches, the degradation, the deaths and the life-altering injuries are not quite entirely history – why, the hundreds upon thousands afflicted so in Iraq and Afghanistan are reminders that donkeys can still overweeningly lead prides of lions.
But the sickening scenes in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and too, too many others horrify while reminding how lucky such as us over here now are.
Why, like Pte Boyd - there but for fortune
Michael Gove may be no fan but many minds might still feel inclined to sympathise with the sardonic - while caustically-jaunty - sentiments of Joan Littlewood's Oh! What A Lovely War.
That crushing closing sequence still stands alone as a gorgeous, poignant, subtly and disgustedly acerbic requiem for lives laid to waste amid such illusory poppy fields.
Plus ca change, eh?
Some lessons from the misleadingly-labelled Great War have been learnt. Many others, not so much.
Not while war remains so seemingly needless, and yet still so inexorably inevitable.