It’s important that I write this piece today as it is exactly 100 years ago that Britain entered the First World War. It was a momentous and fatal step for the whole of Europe and beyond and, although many of the old enmities between nations like France and Germany have been healed, in terms of warfare, the world as a whole has learned very little.
Since the end of the Great War we’ve had the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the war in the Balkans in the 1990s etc., etc., etc. And still it goes on. As I write there’s conflict in the Ukraine and in Israel/Palestine and none of it looks as if it’s coming to an end any time soon.
And so today I think about my paternal grandfather who fought at the Battle of the Somme alongside his younger brother, who died. Unlike my grandfather, Great Uncle Ernest wasn’t much more than a child when he joined the army in 1914. They came from a poor family of ten siblings and, in the scheme of things, they were lucky because only Ernest died in World War 1. But how he died was terrible. He was a Mills bombs thrower, in other words his job, as he went over the top of the trenches, was to lob grenades at the German lines. With a bag of grenades over his shoulder, he was a walking bomb. And when, inevitably, he was hit, he didn’t so much die as disappear. He vaporised into nothing, winked out of existence and all under the eyes of my grandfather, his older brother.
Granddad was never the same after that. Who would be? Pre-war he had been a rather daring young man with a tendency to flout authority and do his own thing. My father and his siblings were born long after the First World War had finished but they never knew that man. They only knew a man who brooded, told horrifying blood-soaked stories and who would disappear for hours on end as he madly raced around the east end of London trying to out-run his demons. He never succeeded. When I knew him in the 1960s, I was a very young child and he was a very old man and all I can recall about him was that he told bizarre stories and had an incurable lung disease. He lived with my grandmother, in an old flat lit by gas lamps and decorated with pictures of a teenage soldier – Ernest.
In 2007, a few years after the death of my own father, I made the decision to write something that reflected my granddad’s world and so Francis Hancock, my crime solving east end undertaker was born. Although much more educated than my grandfather, Francis shared a lot of his traits including being a veteran of the First World War. The series is set in the London Blitz and so Francis has to deal with not only a never ending work-load, but also with his own mind. Like my granddad, Francis suffers from what was then called shell-shock, what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). His greatest fear is of being buried alive in the rubble after an air-raid and so, again like granddad, instead of hiding in a shelter, he runs and walks in the streets of West Ham trying not to let the reality of yet another war, and his memories of the previous conflict, overwhelm him.
So far, there are only four Francis Hancock books, ‘Last Rights’, ‘After the Mourning’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘Sure and Certain Death’. I’d like to write more and, hopefully, sometime over the next four years of the centenary period, I will.
The outfall from World War 1 went on into the 1970s for us as a family and beyond in terms of remembrance. Those rain soaked, silent remembrance Sundays in the 1960s and 1970s may have been replaced by TV dramas about the war and on-line ‘resources’ but the scars are still there. One of the things that affected me personally was the death of Harry Patch in 2009. Mr Patch was 111 years old and was Britain’s last remaining World War 1 veteran. His death brought tears to my eyes.
When I was a little girl in the east end there were a lot of old men who had fought in the First World War. Most of them had an injury of some sort and all of the ones I came across were poor. They patted little kids like me on the head with their dry, battered hands and sometimes they would cry silently over their pints and through the smoke of their roll-ups. I didn’t know what was going on at the time, why would I? But I did know them and I was aware that they were slipping away as the years progressed. Then, suddenly, with the passing of Harry Patch, they had gone.
Now there’s no-one to talk to about what it was really like to be on the Front Line and no-one to thank for sacrifices made that we can only dimly imagine. I feel both close to and very distant from my granddad today and I don’t really know what to do with how this effects me.
Maybe I need to re-visit Francis Hancock and his world once again. Maybe I’ll do that sometime soon…