Heathcote Williams: ‘My Dad and My Uncle’

Words by Heathcote Williams. Narration and montage by Alan Cox.

Written upon learning that WWI centenary Remembrance plans are to be given £50 million by the UK government.
– BBC News, 11 October 2012

My Dad and my Uncle were in World War One.
At least they were in it, but not in it:
Conscripted but never committed.

My Dad was called up in 1915,
And then run over by a field gun
In an army camp at Lydd marsh in Kent,
So he never actually made it
Across the Channel to fight.
His pelvis and both legs were crushed,
In his first week, in a training exercise,
By a Howitzer rolling downhill.
It weighed over thirty hundredweight.


Royal Artillery gun crews with Howitzers at Lydd, World War I [Bill Hyde collection].

While pushing and dragging the gun up a slope
My Dad and the other eighteen-year-olds carried shells,
Shells to be fed into the Howitzer’s six-foot-long barrel.
One of the group lost his footing
And they lost control of the gun carriage,
Then two were crushed by its cast-iron wheels;
Each wheel being the height of a man’s shoulder.
One of them died, but my Dad survived.

As a child I was ashamed of the story,
Naively wanting him to be a hero
But, of course, if he’d never been invalided out,
I might never have come into existence.

There were a thousand Howitzers on the Western Front,
Heavy, Swedish-made guns towed along
By boys, men and horses from battle to battle
Which, by the war’s end, had fired 25 million shells,
Stealing thousands of lives, and generations unborn,
Making the gun crews primary targets.

My Uncle Jack’s connection to the war
Was stronger than my Dad’s, as Jack “saw action”.
He made it across the Channel
In a Royal Artillery troopship,
And lost the use of a limb in 1916.
His arm was half severed by shrapnel:
He held it in place until it was patched up
And then he was returned to his unit,
With a flask of iodine to dab on it.

Jack was in one of that war’s most famous battles,
One of those whose very name makes you well up –
But Jack ran counter to the received wisdom
About the soldiers serving in the Great War
With its sentimental patina and its mythologized tales
Of Nurse Edith Cavell, and the Angel of Mons,
And lions led by donkeys and plucky Brits,
Because my Dad’s elder brother
Never really participated either,
And he certainly never gave it his all.
Jack had “reservations” was how my Dad put it.

More often than not Jack didn’t have “one up the spout”
Meaning he’d avoid putting a bullet in his gun,
Because, with a dodgy arm, it was a nuisance to load it
And when his hands were freezing he just thought ‘sod it’.
It was easy to escape their corporal’s attention,
And Jack said there were many others who did the same.
“Hundreds, if not thousands,” Jack always claimed,
Men whose instincts told them to do the minimum.

Jack won the Military Cross, but not for that.
He won it for dragging their Sergeant Major
Back into the trenches from No Man’s Land,
Where the Sergeant Major was lying wounded.

Jack’s commanding officer came to know of it
And Jack was “mentioned in dispatches” –
The Army’s understated way
Of saying that he’d shown courage
In undertaking his one-armed rescue,
Though, as far as his fellow soldiers were concerned,
Jack’s exploit had been a waste of time
For their Sergeant Major was unpopular,
And in any case he was dead on arrival.

Jack lived with the taunts and the ribbing
About his gesture having been pointless,
And was even accused of doing it to “show off”.
Cripplingly shy, this was a knife to the heart,
And it lasted long, long afterwards.
Jack never picked up his Military Cross
And whenever a family member mentioned it,
He dismissed it as “a putty medal with a wooden string.”

As a child I never quite knew what that meant,
But apparently it was a common expression,
Applied to the top brass when they visited the front,
When they strutted up and down –
Martinets with black gloves and swagger sticks
Fact-finding desk-jockeys from the War Office
Clanking away with their rows of flash medals
And drawing attention to themselves –
Those below in the dugouts would mutter,
“Putty medals with a wooden string.”

“Your Uncle Jack lost all his friends in the trenches,”
My Dad would say, “And he’s never made any, ever again.”
And it was true, I never saw Jack with a friend.
I saw him throughout my life, but he was always alone
Except for his sister, Mabel, who looked after him.
He never made another friend in over fifty years.

Neither he nor my father ever explained the war to me.
It was just something that had happened to them.
Something irrational that hung over them;
A grisly cloud of spectral blood;
A tumour that fogged the psyche;
Something in their history that had spoiled both their lives.
Stoically they never admitted to the pain
But, looking back, my Dad was always in pain
And Jack could be painfully silent
To the point of catatonia.

Even though they were little more than children,
They’d been forced to endure a random, excruciating pain
That had confiscated parts of their bodies,
Bodies that had been their birthright.

But afterwards each was able to exact
A small but significant revenge
By their both giving the war some fifty years
Of unremitting negative spin.
They’d scoff at those who tried to romanticize it;
They’d never buy poppies for their buttonholes;
And on Remembrance Day they’d say
That there was nothing worth remembering.
To my father the cenotaph was “a monument to Jack’s hell.”
“A traffic hazard”, he’d say when we drove past it.
And he’d curse it, that dreary Lutyens plinth
With its floral lifebelts laid beneath it,
Lifebelts that save no one’s lives,
Propped up against a memorial
That’s used to fetishize war after war.
“They should have a picture on it,” my Dad said
“Of your Uncle Jack living beside rotting corpses –
“Pictures of doomed youth with froth-corrupted lungs.”
(He had a first edition of Wilfred Owen.)

As a child I naively wanted to boast about Jack
And to tell other boys that he’d won the MC
As if that would make me seem brave too.
When my father overheard me once
I got a dressing-down that I remember to this day:
He accused me of “throwing Jack’s weight about.
“You never ask yourself do you, why Jack never picked it up?
His medal? Well, he wasn’t proud of it. He was ashamed,
When his friends are there, six foot deep in Belgian mud.
If he doesn’t swank about it, why should you?”

When my father died, Jack invited me to go out for a meal
On the first Friday of the month, every year till he died.
The meals were largely silent. His bad dream was still there,
Even in the nineteen-seventies.
His mind was still numbed by something whose origins
Were inexplicable and which he’d never decoded.
A war that had caused another war, like a cancer
That people still seem unable to cauterize.
Over the years, I’d winkle out his memories
As tactfully as I could.

Jack didn’t mind talking about actual events
Allowing himself only to recount the facts,
But never touching upon his emotions.
A waiter would bring the cheese trolley and most months
Jack would tell the same story about a mule cart
That had arrived behind the lines ferrying an enormous cheese,
A Dutch cheese which they’d all salivated at the sight of.
Jack’s best friend from the same street in Chester
Impulsively ran towards it, his mouth watering
Only to be picked off by a German sniper.
“Fell down against the cheese”, Jack said,
“I won’t eat the stuff now.”
And I’d nod and say, “No,”
As understandingly as I could manage.

The story was unchanging, several times a year.
A hapless waiter wheeled off the cheese trolley untouched.
“I ever tell you about that?” Jack would ask at the end.
I was sure that he half knew he had, but why not?
If the fact of it never went away.

As a boy I seem to have been set the uninvited task
Of probing a world that they wished never existed,
And which left them wishing it would go away.

My Dad and my Uncle were in the First World War
Though it’s not quite the whole story,
Because neither of them were exactly in it,
Not in the way that most people might think,
But from their experiences I was able to learn
What callous folly had killed thirty million.

They were forced to serve King and Country for no reason,
They both had lifelong scars, and got nothing in return –
Nothing from the King, and nothing from the Country,
But both ended up certain there must be another way
And for that I’ve been grateful to them, ever since.

They may or may not be in some other world now
But something is certain, if only to me.
They won’t be commemorating World War One
And may not even think the matter worth raising.

– Heathcote Williams

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Reddit