Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Like Private Ryan, deserve freedom

VERY soon we will be remembering the centenary of day when the guns fell silent 100 years ago and the bloodbath, though not the damage, caused by the First World War was finally over.

Who or what do you remember on Remembrance Day? I can’t remember war — thank God I have never experienced it directly. And to remember peace I just have to look around me.

No, I remember “Uncle” Tom, one of my great-grandfather’s apprentices, who with two great-aunts helped bring me up.

Tom was a wheelwright by trade, who stayed on with the family when his apprenticeship was done.

He volunteered for the army in the First World War, and worked with the horses of the Royal Artillery.

Tom never spoke of the suffering he saw and endured, but there were three things which served as reminders, more to us than him.

Firstly, the swagger-stick tucked into a convenient slot in the workshop wall when he returned in 1918 — it stayed there till he died at the grand old age of 97, nearly 70 years later. “I’m home,” it said, “but I’m not the same.”

Secondly, the picture of The Angels of Mons on the drawing-room wall. It mystified me as a child.

Tom fought at Mons and was sceptical about the story (Wikipedia is your friend!) but the great-aunts were fervent believers — the angel had watched over him.

Thirdly, the loaded shotgun he kept behind the door at the bottom of the stairs, which he would occasionally bring out when some unfortunate bird had the temerity to interfere with his raspberries. Many a starling got both barrels.

It would be hard to find a gentler man in his dealing with people (as opposed to birds). Tom had a twinkle in his eye and an endless supply of stories with which he would charm the ladies, but having that gun close by was important to him. The gun might explain why he remained a bachelor.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I find that around Remembrance Day each year it helps me to remember individuals, people I have known who served through, or didn’t make it through, one of the wars of our nation.

You can see a splendid exhibition about rowers turned soldiers at the River & Rowing Museum.

Remembering them, I begin to understand the true cost and waste of war, the real meaning of courage and sacrifice, and I begin to grasp what our current servicemen and women are offering as they serve here and overseas.

Do you remember the film Saving Private Ryan? A special team search Normandy for a paratrooper, Private Ryan, who is the last surviving brother of four servicemen and missing in action.

After many trials in which two of the team are killed, they find him. The captain of the team is fatally wounded and his last words to Private Ryan are “James … deserve this.”

At this time of year I somehow hear Uncle Tom saying the same to me.

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