Today is the 98th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Two years to go to the centenary. I don’t even want to think about what that might entail.
My grandfather Alfred Aloysius Ward was involved in this War to end all Wars. On 25 September 1915, he took part in the Loos offensive. The British enjoyed massive numerical supremacy against their German opposition at Loos, but once the pre-attack bombardment had finished, the battle plan called for the release of 5,100 cylinders of gas from the British front line. The quantity of gas used was designed to entirely overcome the primitive state of German gas mask design in use at the time, but wind blew the gas back into the British trenches, resulting in 2,632 British gas injuries, one of whom was A A Ward (always known in our family as ‘Alf’).
From here on, Alf was in luck. Disabled by the crude chlorine gas, he wandered about aimlessly, eventually stumbling into a German trench, and was promptly taken prisoner. Had this not happened, the chances of me being here to write about it would be slim indeed.
He was shipped back with hundreds of other POWs to a camp in Bavaria and, having settled in on a Saturday night, the next morning an Oberleutnant came into Alf’s hut and asked all Catholics to identify themselves. The prisoners were wary of some ghastly Hun plot, but grandad dutifully stepped forward, along with a dozen or so others, and confessed to his religious belief. The Oberleutnant bade them come with him.
He led them towards the local town, where they attended Mass. Alf – a keen supporter of Confession – told the priest in garbled German of his guilt at being alive, and then the small group left to return to camp. But after a few hundred metres, the German guard suggested they repair to the local hostelry for a beer. The session turned into quite a few beers and, having wobbled back to the hut, the English soldiers told their mates what had happened.
“Amazingly,” grandad told me many years ago, “next Sunday the entire regiment was Catholic”.