Friday, 9 November 2012

For Francis, Armistice

"When the war ended, I don't know if I was more relieved that we'd won or that I didn't have to go back. Passchendaele was a disastrous battle – thousands and thousands of young lives were lost. It makes me angry. Earlier this year, I went back to Ypres to shake the hand of Herr Kuentz, Germany's only surviving veteran from the war. It was emotional. He is 107. We've had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it's a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn't speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?"Harry Patch

So, Armistice Day approaches again. Before long, we'll pass the century of what it marks. The ubiquitous poppy is out on sale everywhere, and worn with pride by many.

The war to end wars hurt every family in the UK. And many other countries worldwide, we were not alone in that grief, but I can only speak on such a personal topic on a personal level.

It is, essentially, the reason why I refer to my family as a matriarch. The various aspects of my mums family - Bartons, McCallions, Camerons, etc - were wiped out during the First World War, and the balance in the family is still predominantly female even a century on. (The impact of this on the female politic, to the point where all the leaders in my life were female, is a long winded road which has little place in a Armistice story however - I merely mention it for a sense of scale.)

It is claimed that the youngest soldier to die in action during World War One was fourteen. I don't have the exact documents to hand, for reasons which I am about to explain, but I have a feeling its a bit lower than that.

You see, I had a great-uncle.

I had a lot of great-uncles, actually, but this was a specific one. My great-gran, The Great Cameron, her younger brother.

Francis Cassidy.

He was born April 14th, 1902, in the Garscube Road area of Glasgow. His sister Sarah (my great gran) was two, his other sister Margaret was born in 1903.

His parents were Patrick Cassidy (a coal dealer) and Annie Cassidy (nee Mellon) who had married in December 1898.

I learnt about the existence of Francis at the same time my mum did, and my gran did, and all of my living close relatives did. In early 1996, when The Great Cameron died, a birth certificate was found among her possessions.

That ominous feeling you might be starting to get is fully justified.

What we do know is that Francis enlisted to serve in the First World War, and was killed in action, at some point before 1916. This would have made him thirteen at most when he died.

The problem comes with tracking him down. Lord knows Mum has tried, and being a professional (and highly acclaimed) academic historian, she has the sources and abilities to track people down. But Francis was 13, and he picked a false name to enlist, and wherever he died, he was recorded as dead under that false name.

It could literally be anywhere in the battlefields of Europe.

It seemed my Great Gran had responded to this horrible tragedy by never mentioning Francis's existence to a living soul, until all who remembered him passed out of existence, as time marched onwards.

Then we found out that The Great Cameron had told her eldest daughter (my gran's sister) that Francis had died at Gallipoli.

So I put on my thinking cap.

What would I do if I were 13 in 1915?

Run a mile from any enlisting office, I know, but let's get into the mood here. I'd be very nervous, but needing to pick a false name, as my own would be linked back to my school. Needing to come up with a false name on the spur of the moment.

A father's name, perhaps?

A Private Patrick Cassidy, from the Garscube Road area of Glasgow, was killed in action in Gallipoli, 19th June 1915.

Its very much a leap to immediately say "that was Francis", but the information available suggest a possible, and is about as much as the family can work out.

The idea, even without that, of a thirteen year old relative dying in the field of battle, is a little difficult to get the head around.

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest(13)
To children ardent(14) for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.(

And they were but babes in the wood.

For a happier family tale on the banks of the War, I turn to the Somme.

"Happier" and "Somme" are not words I feel really deserve to belong in the same sentence.

It does however, as a tale, bring out the full stupidity of the war, in terms of a black and white "good guys vs bad guys" morality tale.


A Chance Meeting
Michael S. Collins

A story of George Collins, Sr.

He called out but no one could hear him. Over the screaming, the barrage of bullets and the scraping sound of death it was no wonder. It’s the noise of war they never prepare you for. That, and the attempting not to die bit. George snuck his head out of the crater, to see if he could see anything. Dead tree stumps stood where a forest used to, wiped out by human ingenuity at weaponry. The war had killed millions and nearly wiped the landscape off the earth. It had become a muddy pit in the middle of Hell, with blood of all races mingling in the middle of the slaughter. A bullet hit the ground metres away from George, and he ducked back down again.

He inspected his injures. Not serious, he didn’t think, but he’d die out here without help. He tried to get to his feet, but failed three times. His leg had been shot, and was already reacting badly. He grimaced in pain, and tried to crawl up the crater. It was no good, he’d have to call for help.

“Can anyone hear me?” he called out, over the sounds of battle. Like anyone would be able to.

He called out once more. But then a voice called out in response: “Ja?”

The blood froze inside George as the other soldier fell forward into the crater.  He landed in a heap opposite George, who could tell from the uniform insignia that this solider was not on his side. The other man looked up, saw his company, and began to cower against the crater side.

“I’m not going to hurt you.” George said. “Not quite able to just now, you know.”

“Ich verletzt” he cried out.

“Do you speak English?” George asked.

“Keiner” he replied, and shook his head for effect.

That would make things difficult. George spoke no German either. A third man fell into the crater, on top of the German. He was dead though, and the German screamed horribly, as though on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It was never something the soldiers were trained to expect, the constancy of death rampaging down on them.

George tried to communicate with the other. He gestured that he meant no harm. George was a pacifist anyway, he’d been conscripted under duress, and found himself in the midst of the Somme before he even got his bearings. He pointed at his arm, signalling to the Germans arm, which was bleeding heavily. George thought over it, then pointed again while making a pained expression. The German lad nodded. George fumbled in his pockets, then produced his First Aid kit. If we are left for dead in this modern Hell, we might as well protect against death for as long as we can, he figured. The German hobbled over to his side of the Crater, and George held both his hands out to show he had no weapon in them. It was lying further down the Crater from him, and all the bullets had been used up. George had shot them at a bush he passed, so as to save his conscience. He did know his first aid though, and within a few minutes the bleeding was stemmed in a makeshift torque of the man’s shirt. It was bloody cold in the battlefield, but the cold will kill slower than the bleeding. The man smiled, he was the same age as George, but seemed more innocent. The German pointed towards George’s leg, and leant over it. There was a swift pained sensation, but then, on the Germans gesticulations, he lifted himself to his feet, and found he could – admittedly barely but still – limp forward a few inches.

“George?” someone called out, not German this time. The German heard it, and started to back away. He had to leave before the Ally  showed up, else he might be killed as an enemy. There was a pause, before he handed George something. George opened up his hand to reveal a German war medal. He tried to hand it back, but the German was insistent. Stuck for a moment, George took off his Star and handed it to the German. An exchange of medals. Then the German left the Crater. They never met again.

George’s comrades found him, and he was in the army hospital before long, where they discovered he’d been shot badly. He lived through the war, though he was never the same, and though he had a family afterwards, he lived with the horrors of the war for years after. He died in 1947, a year before his eldest son produced the first of many, many grandchildren. To his eldest son Richard, he had passed on the horrors of war and the need for Christian pacifism, and Richard had spent time in jail for his conscientious objection during the Second World War, before fighting for the rights of war widows on his release. His youngest son, also called George, had a son who was my father. George Snr’s war wounds would have killed him, they did in the end, but they would have killed him in a crater in the midst of the Somme if not for one chance encounter. But for chance meetings are dynasties spawn.

George never knew what became of the German lad. All we know of his existence is the old German war medal, which dad still has in the family possession. 


In the dramatisation of that true story, I made one error, worse than my woeful German (used mainly to convey the language barrier). That is that the pacifism I attribute to George Snr arrived as a result of his war experiences in The Great War, and not before. The War office gave him three weeks in hospital to recover from those wounds, and he wound up in various hospitals for two years. The resulting infirmity prevented the family emigrating to Canada in the late 1920s.

When I think of the First World War, I think of my lost great-uncle, died god knows when, buried god knows where. I think of my great-grandad, who so easily might have died, and what his story tells us about the futility of war.

And I remember Harry Patch. Because, you see, I was not old enough to remember Francis or George Snr. The War was a fast fading life experience by the time I arrived on the scene. Yet, with his longevity Harry (and the equally lovely Henry Allingham) were living symbols of the horrors until their eternal rest in Summer 2009.

Patch supplies the opening quote, and justly so. He also was quite the unassuming fellow: he declined many honours, and didn't want himself to be remembered for this.

But, with the due respect for Mr Patch, I have to disagree. He is a symbol in more ways than one. You see, he and Mr Allingham, they were living symbols to me and Mandy's generation. Especially as they became well into their 100s, their witticisms, life philosophies, and general mischievousness brought a smile to the face.

Allingham and Patch were completely breathing full formed personalities before our eyes.

Good company to have around. Both provided many years public service in their own fields, both had extensive families who loved them.

Around eighteen MILLION Harry Patches died in that Great War. Remembering him, and his like, allows us to remember the sheer scale of what we lost, and remember it in terms that bring history closer to us.

Harry Patch was nearly 110 when he died. Francis would be 110 now if he were still with us.

I'd like to tell you all sorts of anecdotes about how witty he was, and what he got up to, but I can't. History has blown him away, like a non-entity chosen to die for his country.

So in this small moment of time, we remember him, like we remember all of those souls we lost.

Requiescat in pace.