I never knew my Grandad, my mother’s father. He died long before I was born – the mustard gas he was exposed to during the First World War caused permanent scarring to his lungs, leading him to suffer tuberculosis.
Twenty-five years after breathing in its poison, as an 18-year-old, on the front line trenches of France, he passed away at home. He was 42, leaving a widow, a young son and a baby – my mother – then just a few weeks old.
I’m ashamed to say that as a child he meant almost nothing to me. He was a black and white one-dimensional figure from the past, a sepia-tinted image from family scrapbooks. He wasn’t real, not like my other Grandad – who made me laugh with his funny antics, took me on bracing walks, baked delicious buns and was always a fountain of knowledge.
My father’s father died when I was in my early 30s. And it was only really in grieving for him, that I began to think more about this other significant member of my family – as much a part of my being in the world – but with no memories to reflect on.
I don’t practice religion as such, but in my quiet irregular faith I like to “remember” loved ones. So of course when Grandad died, I included him in my litany. I realised then I had never once “remembered” my other grandfather, prayed for him, asked the God I believe in, to keep him safe.
How could I have made such a massive oversight?!! Overlooked his service to his country at such a young age, his courage, the fear he must have felt lying wounded on a battlefield, his following struggle to find work in failing health and raise a family. Overlooked his ultimate sacrifice – losing his own life having fought, so that others may live in peace. Never seeing his son and daughter grow up, let alone his grandchildren. Overlooked all that, despite his direct and personal connection to me.
We’re asked this Armistice Day to remember all who sacrificed their lives in conflict: a memorial dating from the end of the First World War in 1918, and as relevant now as then. Soldiers are still dying – killed outright on foreign shores, or succumbing back home to physical and mental injuries, too much to bear.
The First World War has faded into the history books. The men who fought there – like my grandfather – are photographs in family scrapbooks, perhaps captured on film or audio – but no longer here to remind us directly of who they were, their experience.
And today there are still children growing up, who like me, will never know a grandparent, or – as it was for my mother – never know a parent.
It’s easy to overlook or forget things – especially when you have no direct experience of something or someone. But we can learn so much from what others have done before.
That’s why at 11 o’clock today I’ll stand silent for two minutes to “remember” the wars I’ve never lived through, today’s conflicts I see only through television and newspapers, the courageous men and women I’ve never met who’re fighting for peace, and especially – remember the grandfather I never knew.
NB: Around 8,000 British soldiers were killed directly as a result of gas poisoning in the First World War – but a further 180,000 suffered non-fatal injuries from it, 70% of them being declared fit for duty in six weeks. Most were left with permanent scar tissue damage to their lungs, leaving them exposed to diseases like tuberculosis. With effective treatment still under development, many of the 1918 casualties died around the time of the Second World War. (Source: Wikipedia)