Friday, January 20, 2012

Tales from the Great War

Attention, Downton fans: You will recall from the ghost story I told about my grandmother's midnight visitation in the tower room of Fritwell that my grandfather served in France during World War I as an officer in the Canadian army. While Granny and her sisters and my five-year-old mother were frolicking on the grounds of Fritwell Manor, Grandaddy was in the trenches, battling the Hun.

The unpleasantness of trench warfare is well known. My understanding is that it was much worse than what they show on Downton Abbey. In the beginning when the troops went over the top of the trenches to attack the enemy the British forces still kept to the old model of marching in perfectly disciplined formation. Effective against the French at Waterloo, maybe, but against German machine guns not so much. The 'three on a match' superstition arose in the trenches; by the time the third soldier got his cigarette lit the German snipers had a bead on him.

Most folks who have spent any time on a battlefield are reluctant to talk about it afterwards. Nevertheless Granddaddy told a story to my mother, who told it to me.

My grandfather and a fellow officer, a close friend, were occupying a trench together. It was springtime. The friend was moved to climb out and roam the countryside, which was somehow possible just then. He found a rosebush, or a number of them, all in bloom. He cut the roses and brought them back to the trench with him. It was a moment of beauty, a rare thing in that time and place.

Suddenly a shell came screaming into the trench and my grandfather's friend was killed. There he lay surrounded by roses. It was an image that my grandfather carried in his memory to the end of his life.

Were they in Picardy? I don't know. It would take me a month to research it. Anyway here's the famous song of that era.

Kate Gallison


  1. Roses do enter so many accounts for various depths, - reminds me of the story by Katharine Mansfield, The Garden Party... tjs

  2. Never underestimate the power of warfare to make the heart break. The man I knew who went into the trenches during WWI as a young man came home only a couple years later as an old man with a terrible stutter and a nervous condition from being gassed.

  3. My favorite song about war goes in part like this: "I'll never give boy to be a kill some other Mother's darling boy." I wince when I see those women in the Downton series urging men into battle. I can understand the male of the species, with their atavistic urge to go to battle, doing such a thing, But why would any woman think war was a good idea. My father, the WWII combat Marine called it the most insane way to answer a question ever invented by man.

  4. My father served in WW2, my brother in the Korean War, I grew up during the years when Nofolk, VA was like a combination battle ground and a prison camp for the young Nazi boys, whom we saw in trucks as they were ferried around town. War is never romantic. It is only hell. tjs