Anecdotage

On April 15th – only five weeks from now – it will be a century since the Titanic sank. What I would ask you to remember is that, the first time I asked my Grandad about this incident, he was talking about something that had been breaking news when he was already 23 years old.

He remembered hearing about the sinking quite clearly. That’s hardly surprising, given that, in 1958 when I questioned him about, it he was a mere 79 years old. (My grandfather Aloysius was still completely in charge of himself at the age of 95). What intrigues me is how first-hand history can be passed on once people live beyond 80. Not only that, I often catch myself thinking that something happened twenty-five years before today…but when I first started thinking about why and how Hitler rose to power, he had died a mere seventeen years previously; odder still, he had come to power less than thirty years before. As we live longer, spoken history becomes a reality.

Having volunteered for the Lancashire Regiment in late 1914, Grandad – always known in my family as ‘Al’ – first saw action in the summer of 1915. By some miracle, he survived until the Spring of 1916, when he was gassed  and then captured. From then until the end of the Great War in 1918, he was a prisoner.

I asked him what his emotions were on being captured, and with a wry smile he said, “Relief. I remember thinking, by God, I’m going to survive”. Until that point, death had seemed to him inevitable.

Al was very amusing on the subject of being a POW. “The first weekend we were there [in Bavaria] on the Sunday the Oberfeldwebel, a huge chap with a grand moustache, came into our hut,” he told me. “And in halting English asked which of us were Catholics. We’d been fed a lot of stuff about the filthy Hun, so the blokes were fearful. But I thought well, I’m a Catholic, I’m going to say so. In the end, four of us stepped forward. ‘Komm mit!’ he said, and so we followed him. He led us down to the local village, and there we celebrated Mass and attended confession. Afterwards, we passed the local hostelry, and he more or less said ‘Do you fancy a pint?’ I can tell you, we had more than a pint. The next weekend, there were twenty-nine Catholics in our hut”.

Eventually, early in 1919, Al came back to what Lloyd-George had dubbed ‘A land fit for Heroes’.  He wasn’t impressed: his job as a master carpenter had gone, and his only reward for being machine-gun fodder was a minute pension for having been gassed. Eventually – with no other employment presenting itself – my Grandad became ‘a ding-ding’: a conductor on the Salford trams.

In 1926 during the General Strike, Al joined his co-workers in a stand against wage cuts and ‘the great strike-breaker’ Winston Churchill. The General Strike lasted just nine days. Al – as a prominent organiser – was told his services were no longer required. With three children to support, he led a hand-to-mouth existence from then until the Second World War. My father went out to work as a bread delivery boy at fourteen – and then became the office boy at a cloth merchants he later rose to run as a partner during the 1960s. Dad never voted anything other than Conservative. When I tackled him about this, he shrugged and said, “Bloody Labour for all their grand ideas…what did they ever do for my Dad?”

I last spoke to my Grandad in June 1983 – when he was 94 – just prior to the General Election of that year. I asked him what he thought of Margaret Thatcher. Instead – as old people often do – he answered a different question.

“I’m going to vote Conservative this time,” he said. Bewildered, I asked him why.

“You know,” he said, a twinkle in his eye, “I don’t think Labour’s thinking about my future”.

He came from another age did Alfred Aloysius Ward. One where politics was far too serious to be taken too seriously.

39 thoughts on “Anecdotage

  1. Then he must have been 69 y.o. at 1958, not 79.
    And it might have been the Titanic’s once-wounded already sister
    which sunk a century ago, thus the kill exploded with first impact and the ship sunk horizontally and immediately, according to the underwater
    photographed remains.

  2. Wonderful! Made me think of my own dear Grandad, who also served in a Lancs Regiment in the Royal Horse Artillery. Totally different world now, I wonder what on earth they would think about it.

  3. Re your father voting Tory all his life, one Labour politician, I can’t remember who, tells the tale of canvassing in his solid working-class Liverpool constituency in the early Eighties and asking one old women he met on her doorstep, more or less rhetorically, how she was going to vote. “I’m voting for Maggie Thatcher,” she told him to his astonishent. “But why?” he asked her. “Well,” said the old woman, “ she got us into this bloody mess and she can bloody well get us out of it again.”

  4. “Bloody Labour for all their grand ideas…what did they ever do for my Dad?”

    I wonder what your father would have made of the current conservatives?

    On another topic – the confidence placed in the Titanic was well placed. Stacking deck-chairs on the RMS Olympic worked the year before, and would work for another 25 years too. It was the war that saw the third sister ship sunk (as a hospital ship in the Aegean). How many liners crossed the Atlantic without mishap? A great many, far more than are remembered today.

    That does not mean that the captain of the Titanic was correct in his hubris though. When you are in charge of something so large and precious as an ocean going liner with thousands of people on board, the last thing you must do is to start assuming everything will be okay. The difference between Smith and Merkel seems to be that whilst Smith was above the dangers he faced, Merkel seems unequal to them.

  5. I’m 54, I had to buy some matches the other day, I bought swan vestas, the box was enough to give me a nostalgia attack. I vaguely remember when I was very small round about 1960, family members were often talking about the war & the Germans. My father had not long come back from doing his National service in Germany, he was having trouble finding work & we were pretty skint. I remember once seeing a woman in a uniform coming down the garden path at whose sight my Mother dragged us kids to hide in the pantry. For years until I was told it was the rent woman I thought she was a German.
    I watched the film ” Wish you were here ” again not so long ago which was set in the 1950′s. Any film set in that period takes me back to my Grandparents homes which in the 70′s still had similar decor & toilet in the yard etc. Things obviously changed much slower then & all my grandparents had a touch of WW2 about them.

      • I’m with you Patrick, and likely of similar vintage. The stories are nice, and some likely have an element of truth (as remembered at least). The real ha ha though is to imagine that because an event was contemporary (or, spoken history becoming a reality) this is reason to believe that any accounts are thus more accurate. Hearing about the Titanic “live” so to speak gives you no more insight than us hearing the truth about the death of Diana, John Lennon, John Kennedy, or any example you want to pick. We were alive of course, but not there, and we relied upon what we were told by the MSM – likely worse then even than now since some restraints are placed by the internet.

    • Steve the matches reminded me of my father, who often spoke about the WW1 vets he used to see selling matches around Wellington City here in NZ. Dad always said it used to make his fathers blood boil, as here were returned soldiers who had been gassed , and often with amputations, selling matches in the street whilst councils all over the country were building expensive monuments to the dead of the war. His opinion was the dead would have preferred the living to be taken care of first, before any opening of monuments by politicians.

      • My Grandfather (who did 4 years in the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders in 14-18) absolutely loathed the war memorials for that very reason. He also refused to wear a poppy, on the grounds that it was the “Earl Haig Appeal” and he would have preferred to bayonet that gentleman rather than wear anything associated with him.

        I think he would have been wryly puzzled by the so-called poppy fascism you get on the BBC around November time. He would have been completely outraged by people who suggest that those who don’t wear them are being unpatrotic; I can hear him saying now “and when was that man in a trench with an angry German?”

  6. “What intrigues me is how first-hand history can be passed on once people live beyond 80.”

    There is a refinement of this. Over on ARRSE, I’m sure it was, some time ago they had a thread on how far back personal links to real history could go.

    Two links were allowed: the contributors in their youth had known someone elderly (Link 1) who themselves had known someone in their youth, and this third person had also been elderly (Link 2). This third person had either had personal experiences of, or first hand knowledge of individuals who had been involved in, historical actions/events several generations ago.

    Naturally, the older members of ARRSE had the longest linkages, and many of them followed a typical pattern:

    As young people in the 30s/40s/50s, they had often known an elderly individual (Link 1) who had been involved in, say, the Boer Wars and some of the various scraps and skirmishes that went on around the Empire.

    Link 1 in turn had, in his/her youth, known people (Link 2) who had been involved in Crimea, the Zulu Wars, Indian Mutiny etc. etc. These folk were also able to speak of people they had known as youngsters who had been involved in the Napoleonic Wars and the events that went on at the turn of the 19th century.

    I recently read that recollections of the Civil War are still very much active in the US. Of course, if someone knew someone who knew ….. history books contain just too much detail!

    Somewhat incredible, going back over 150 or more years on purely personal recollections. Could this perhaps help explain why personal prejudices are so difficult to stamp out?

    • This sort of setup is the reason that the ‘idea’ that the victors write the history is not completely true. There are always those who were there who pass on the reality to their children (and others) and no amount of history rewriting can change these experiences.
      We have entered an age of ‘re-enlightenment’ via the Internet and one as scepticle as I wonders whether this is the reason behind the ongoing governmental censorship reasoning. Those in power ALWAYS want to tell the story in their own terms.
      As with ACTA (etc.) – they do not give a monkeys about the poor starving pop stars etc. It is the POWER which opposes them they wish to curtail. One step at a time. And there is always another self designated victim who the POWER has to protect !

      • Well at least they will soon have lots of nice new happy events to put in the Memory Bank after Nelson Mandela drops off his perch and the nice Jacob Zuma and his protege Uncle Bob Mugabe get to work on their restorative justice project.

  7. Al’s story of the affable Hun is very moving: it reveals how perfectly decent blokes were induced to struggle for years on end to kill one another, amidst filth and horror.

    Lloyd George is said to have remarked: “if people knew what is happening, this war would end tomorrow. But, of course, the people can never know.”

    Perhaps in the age of the blog, people have some slight chance of knowing what is happening.

    The latest on the sinking of Titanic is that a rare atmospheric condition created a mirage that obscured the view of the berg.

    • @CanSpeccy “The latest on the sinking of Titanic is that a rare atmospheric condition created a mirage that obscured the view of the berg.”

      I do chuckle at some of these elaborate and fancy theories. The truth is probably very humdrum and ordinary. The safety of the whole ship was entrusted to two very lowly paid lookouts sitting in the crows nest for hour after hour on a freezing cold night. I wonder how many boring routine on watch crows nest hours they had both put in that week? Plain and simply boredom and inattention probably meant they didn’t make the call on time or maybe they were simply distracted and messing about. The modern day equivalent would be a couple of Security Guards or CCTV operators not watching their screens attentively. The White Star line for all its glory and money had effectively bet the house on a couple of contract Seamen making a timely call in difficult conditions. They didn’t and the great ship met its demise.
      The same sort of routine dreary ineptness finished the Herald of Free Enterprise when another Seamen forgot to close the bow doors prior to getting under way due to a bad hangover from a heavy drinking bout the night before. No great conspiracy or fancy theory required just human behaviour and carelessness.

    • Canspeccy
      At the last count, 72.3% of passengers had voted to participate in the evacuation, but only 38% of the total passenger manifold can get in the lifeboats. Also First Class passenger Venizelos has been warned to stay at the centre of the ship, for ballast purposes, by White Star engineer Wolfie Schauble.

  8. (and the band played on)

    My dad’s dad wasn’t too gifted in the occular regions but, when the First War came he wanted in. Sitting in the waiting room for the eye test he asked all the lads coming out to give him the gist, hoping he could busk it; but, on going in he was unable to convince. Still up for it, he joined the Ambulance Corps and went to France where he met my grandmother, who had gone out also. There are some lovely, funny stories about both of them; one concerns my grandfather, who travelled up to London from Chislehurst, where they lived, every day for work. One evening, walking down The Strand to Charing Cross for his train, he noticed an open car (this was 1920′s) being driven erratically and was surprised to see a nearish neighbour at the wheel; he shouted and gained the driver’s attention who lurched the car to the curb and stopped. It was immediately obvious that his neighbour was in drink so my grandfather, who wasn’t aware that the man owned a car, offered to drive them both home. Intending to drop the man and car off and walk the rest, on reaching his abode he asked the fellow where he should put the car. The reply was (in a voice slurred by alcohol) “I don’t care, Harold, it’s not mine.” This cove was a mason; he’d come out of a lodge meeting half cut, quickly calculated the impediments to an easy return to the bosom of his family and, on seeing an open car – very few had keyed ignitions then – borrowed it. My grandfather walked home via the police station and told them what had happened and where they could find the car (!) and, apparently, nobody got too worked up about it.

    I’m not suggesting that human relationships are any more complicated now than they were then, but I get the feeling that the rest of it is.

    • Can you imagine it now, there would be half a dozen cops in a high speed chase all on BBC news 24 (via a live feed from a helicoptor).

      The assailant would be locked up with chance of parol for the rest of his life (meanwhile a known terrorist is allowed to walk free and ‘claim’ his benefits as per his human rights, makes you wonder what all the sacrifice in the First and Second World Wars was ll for).

      • With respect, he may well be a “known” (i.e. believed to be) terrorist, but he is not a convicted terrorist-because he has not been charged let alone convicted.
        In my view, that is precisely what the sacrifice was about-the right to be free unless convicted by a court of law. He was kept under “house arrest” without any trial whatsoever-an absolute disgrace.

    • My old dad (gone 4 years now) had lousy eyesight too, and asked all the guys up the queue to memorise a line on the chart for him. Worked out fine; then he went to another examination where the guy asked him to identify german ships from models. Me Pa picked up the first one from the desk, turned it over and saw the class and name, so just repeated it. Guy doesn’t look up from his desk, he is seeing dozens of people each day, and in a world-weary manner says ‘very good, now ship B?’ So picking up each one in turn, the bright young recruit reeled off the classes and names.
      He had the nerve to ask how he did at the end………
      He claimed he had a good war by luck, but had a great peace too.

  9. Great post. My great grandfather was in the Great War. He too was a Master Carpenter, but instead of getting the chance to work with wood in the trenches, (in between dodging bullets), he used his ‘waiting time’ to make little gnome figures from the brass of spent shell casings. We still have one in the family.

    • David
      Exactly. Al made fag-lighters out of machine-gun empties too. The human being is infinitely resourceful and stoical – given half a chance.

  10. Lovely story,JW. What a character your Grandad was.
    My Scottish Grandad also served in France in WW1, but was invalided out due to paralysis setting in ,due to an accident he had had as a child. He died, & my Grandmother was not granted a war widow’s pension as he didn’t die in action. There were six mouths to feed including my mother, and they often went hungry. Times were very hard in those days. My Father was too young for the 1st war, but served in the airforce for the 2nd. He told me,rather bitterly, that he hadn’t wanted children, as they would only be used as ‘cannon fodder’. So, it’s almost a miracle that I am here.

  11. Fascinating and not too far removed from my own experience, but then I’m only a couple of years younger than you, John.

    My paternal grandfather was an apprentice, a conductor and then a tram driver for London Transport. He volunteered for the Coldstream Guards. They gave him a Vickers machine gun and he sat behind the lines for the whole of WW1 firing millions of rounds. He only ever met German prisoners and survived without a scratch. He was a fire-watcher in WW2. At London Transport he went on to be an inspector (four jobs in 57 years starting at 14 years old) and went well past retirement (because of WW2) ending up, I believe, the longest serving employee of London Transport for which I have a certificate. He died at 96 with all his marbles.

    I was born in the NE because my father moved there for his job, which was public transport too. I was brought up in Manchester when we moved again – and qualified as an engineer at Salford University – and started in buses too (!) although I soon moved on.

    My wife’s maternal grandfather (Liverpool and later Southport) had a difficult WW1 – gassed and hand-to-hand in the trenches, and a sniper. He ended up dropping bombs out of a army flying corp paper, string and glue biplane. He survived and came back to dire straights, but survived again and worked until his 80s finally expiring at 92.

    I often think we’ve had a pretty easy time in comparison.

  12. To everyone
    Reading the intelligence and emotional rapport of these threads is worth a thousand scoops and a million hits.
    Thank you all so much.
    JW

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