Yesterday was a chance for people to remember relatives who died in the 1914-1918 conflict, often the only record of their existence being grainy old portraits from a grandmother’s mantelpiece and a gravestone in France. I have no idea what my grandfather did, although he was old enough to be fighting by the end of the war; he was a journalist too so he probably just sat behind a typewriter encouraging others to fight and making stuff up.
I do remember as a child hearing about how my great-uncle, Charles Leaf, had suffered terrible shellshock in the trenches. But I only recently read my grandmother’s memoirs, which were published in 1958, and which end in July 1914. Then, aged 14, the childhood world she knew disappeared; going for a walk with her mother and brother Charles in the Surrey countryside, they were stopped by a young motorcyclist asking where the nearest recruitment centre was. She wrote:
‘When the stranger had departed in a roar of dust, Charlie stood gazing after him; then, as we turned towards home, he blurted out that he himself must go immediately to Camberley because he was determined to enlist.’
She recalls no joy or excitement on his part, nor pride in her mother, who only wished for him to wait. Her father, the banker and classicist Walter Leaf, ‘had come down from London exhausted’ and ‘shaken by the war’s first impact on his friends’ as they prepared for the conflict that was looming.
‘He tried, however, very gently, to explain to us what war might eventually mean to countless families like ours. And then, suddenly, as he was helping us to share his wider vision, his voice broke, and I realized that he was crying.’
‘It came to me in a flash of light that my father could see further, feel deeper, than the rest of us. He was crying partly, it is true, for the end of the world that he had known through sixty years; but he was also profoundly stirred by his knowledge that a new world, full of potential opportunities as well as dangers, was being born.’
Looking back from 2014, there seem to be far more dangers than opportunities; but my grandmother was very much a woman of the 1920s, part of the first year to get degrees at Cambridge, so maybe she saw something positive in the new world. (Her husband was from a slightly less gentrified background, and I wonder to what extent the feminism of the 1920s was driven by women having to marry below their station, with so many men, and in particular upper-class men, killed in Flanders.)
My grandmother’s memoirs were published before The Donkeys and Oh! What a Lovely War and later Blackadder changed the way we saw the conflict. Perhaps it was written with 40 years hindsight or distortion of memory, but she certainly didn’t recall sheep marching off cheerfully to a war that would be over by Christmas; her father saw it as a disaster, a failure by politicians.
My grandmother’s brother survived the war, and despite the shellshock must have got on with his life, as he went on to Cambridge, married, had three children, and even won gold at sailing at the 1936 Olympics. He re-enlisted in 1939. His elder son was killed fighting the Nazis; his daughter was a pioneering female pilot who died a few weeks ago.
And to think we went from that to Big Brother in just two generations.