WHEN BUGLES SOUND

On November, 14th, 1918, my father wrote to my mother, ‘We were patrolling ahead of the infantry when the news reached us in a small village.  Everyone went mad.  The civilians were pulling men from their saddles and hugging and kissing them.  I can hardly believe it’s all over.  All I want to do now is to get back to you and the boys and forget all about these horrible four years’.

But they were never to be forgotten.  As children in the late 1920s and early 1930s it seemed to me and my two closest brothers (three more sons had followed ‘the boys’) that for my parents and most of their contemporaries life had three tenses: before, during and after the war.  It was – or perhaps because of a child’s selective interest seemed to be – the prime source of all adult conversation, the chief reference point in all discussion. People were known to us by their significance vis-à-vis the epoch-making conflict.  Mr A was well thought of because he had been ‘in the thick of it’. B was looked down on because he had dishonourably contrived to avoid it.

Scattered about the house were the sorts of souvenirs that in those days were to be found in countless homes to which men had returned from active service: the German gas mask in its grey metal container, the black leather belt with the “Gott Mitt Uns” buckle, the bayonet with the evil saw edge, the Uhlan’s brass helmet with a hole where the spike ought to have been. They fascinated us, not as playthings, but as tangible links with what was so familiar to us from the multi-volume, illustrated histories of the war of which we never tired.

Passchendaele, Ploeg (‘Plug’) Street, Polygon Wood, Arras, Cambrai; they seemed as familiar as were our native villages and coppices.  They were the stuff of my father’s sometimes humorous but  often sad, wistful reminiscences.  They were the stained tunic and greatcoat that hung in the cupboard on the landing.  They were the officer’s epaulettes and the trooper’s bandolier, the heavy iron shell base  and  brass nose fuse that I use as paperweights.

All were part of a world where spring and summer seemed to have been suspended.  All evoked the  smell of rain and mud and sodden misery.  Because it had not then come within one’s own personal experience, one did not associate them with the smell of death, but I think my father did, though not at the time he brought such souvenirs home. He did not then know (as most of his kind did not; as we, their sons, a  quarter of a century later mostly did not ) that war is seldom merely an interruption in the lives of those who fight in it and survive, an episode upon which the door may be closed and from which a man emerges essentially the same as he went in.

He did not know, I suspect, that he and countless thousands like him had suffered one of war’s greatest injuries— the loss of that blessed illusion of invulnerability which sustains one through many an otherwise insupportable moment.  When a man has seen death deal equally with the brave as with the cowardly, with the admirable as with the contemptible, with the just as with the unjust; when the awful impartiality of fate has been so often reaffirmed in the anonymous and lifeless shape under the army-issue blanket, the mind has lost one of its most precious defences.

My father had his daydreams, heaven knows, but I never knew him to speak confidently of the future. ‘Thank your lucky stars . . .’ was more often than not integral to his admonitions against self pity and ingratitude.

Perhaps it has been the adult realisation of what men suffered in and after the First World War that has not only sustained but enhanced one’s emotional involvement with it.  Though my father returned safely from them, I cannot visit the battlefields of the old ‘Western Front’ without feelings so intense and tears so often shed  that I am soon emotionally exhausted. It is not, I think , and never will be so for the children of my own generation.  Not for them the truly respectful two-minute silences that once brought traffic to a standstill even in London, the fervent – even tearful – singing of “Onward, Christian soldiers” and “Oh valiant hearts” or the instinctive standing to attention for Last Post and Reveille. Not for them the almost visceral compassion such as nurtured  the poetry and protests of Owen and Blunden and Graves and Sassoon.

When Armistice Day congregations are asked to remember the dead of all Britain’s wars, many of us who bow our heads will still be  thinking more of what happened more than 93 years ago than of any later battles. But after us, who will remember Flanders and Picardy when bugles sound and autumn leaves fall?

Adapted from the Sunday Telegraph, November 1978.

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