Yesterday was my father-in-law’s birthday. If he were still alive, he would have been 103; he was already old enough to be a grandfather by the time his first child was born. My husband was the youngest of three boys, the first of whom was still-born. My parents-in-law had their children late because the Second World War intervened.
Already thirty, Dad volunteered for active service early in the war; because of his age, this was long before he would have been officially ‘called up’. In retrospect, it was a smart move: it meant that he ‘had a good war’ and, although he certainly found himself in some dangerous situations, he was not often in the forefront of the fighting. He elected to join the Coldstream Guards and was employed as the batman and driver of a brigadier who was also an aristocrat – someone whom the government wanted to keep out of harm’s way. Ironically, the brigadier was killed right at the end of the war, when the armoured car in which he was being driven to a strategy meeting in the field went over a Teller mine. By some fluke, he had taken a reserve driver with him on that day, so my father-in-law survived.
He didn’t talk much about the war or, indeed, about his own youth. I know that he was the eldest boy of a family of seven (he had one elder and two younger sisters, and a younger brother; two other siblings died in infancy). His father was a chicken farmer who was gassed in the First World War (like one of my own ancestors). I don’t know how long he survived after this, but he certainly didn’t work again. When Dad married my mother-in-law, he was still taking responsibility for his own family and continued to send his mother money regularly until she died.
He wasn’t bitter about the war, nor did he question the way it was run. He had a small fund of stories that he told, but he always related them in a matter-of-fact way, as if what happened was inevitable. For example, he was part of the second wave of D-Day landings. He said that he and his colleagues ran inland from the beach, saw a German tank ahead and ran back towards the sea again (discretion the better part etc.) – hardly the glorious unstoppable heroics celebrated long afterwards in books and films! (I remember noting the very gradual shift away from unrealistic, partisan and fictional representations of the war to a more balanced and gritty portrayal of its truths.) Soldiers were issued with cans of corned beef as emergency rations – the type that had a metal strip round its middle that you pulled to divide the can into two halves. He remembered that, when it was very hot, as soon as they pulled the can apart, the meat was covered with blowflies. But they ate it, anyway. As they worked their way up through France and the Netherlands towards Germany, one of the more amazing tasks that befell Dad was to dig daily a ‘foxhole’ in the ground for his superior; though the trench was a defensive measure, he would arrange a waterproof tarpaulin and fill it with warm water so that the brigadier could take a bath. Shades of Blackadder indeed! He also remembered the many corpses of bloated cows that littered the French countryside, dead because their owners had fled and no-one had been left to milk them. Always an enthusiastic but never obsessive gambler, Dad made modest but often successful bets on dog- and horse-racing, which still took place in various places along his route, and had to obtain permission from the brigadier to send his winnings home.
From my observation of my father-in-law and my own father and the fathers of my friends who were half a generation younger, I’d say that there was a great dividing line between those who fought in the war and those who didn’t. Dad belonged to a generation which dealt in absolutes. He believed in authority, hierarchies, decorum and The Queen. There was a way of doing things and he liked it to be observed. My husband relates that his father met him off the train after his first university term with: ‘That’s a very disgraceful pair of shoes that you’re wearing.’ He didn’t ‘get’ that his son didn’t value polished toe-caps. He always meant well, having a kindly heart, but wasn’t very attuned to the sensitivities of others. When I first met him, we drove to find him on the day’s estate shoot; at the time, I was not keen on any kind of meat, but, since he happened to be carrying a brace of duck, he thrust them into my hands as an intended kindly gesture! Later, when I revealed that I was scared of moths (a phobia that I’ve since conquered), he caught a large one and informed me: ‘Now I’m going to show you what a beautiful creature a moth is.’ When he discovered that I disliked Christmas pudding (an aversion to which I have remained constant), he lay back in his chair, shut his eyes in disgust, and announced: ‘Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Christmas pudding.’
It interests me, though, how people can be cut off from the era in which they live by an event that those younger than themselves cannot wholly relate to. Dad survived the war by more than forty years, but he never really belonged to the era that succeeded it, which, in this case, saw the children of retainers (like himself) to the landed classes develop through educational opportunity an independence that challenged the authority of the class system. I suspect that this has also been true of others who have lived in previous centuries through sudden seismic shifts of values: from the Civil War to the Restoration, for example, or from the Regency to the reign of Queen Victoria.
I haven’t talked to my husband about yesterday’s date, but I’m sure that it won’t have escaped his notice. His father was a more remote ‘father figure’ than fathers are today, but he was loved and respected and is still remembered; indeed, his last generous act, shortly before he died, when he was not really fit to drive, was to take his car and head off to a local orchard, in order to bring us back a whole box of Cox’s apples. He lived up to his own very high standards. They were just different from ours.