Just a Boy
Forgotten now those days of youth
Those pretty girls, the odd half truth
A mother’s love, a father’s praise
And sometimes his reproving gaze
Memories buried in the fray
Now seem a million miles away
Just a boy
Not for him a second chance
Not for him a sweet romance
No wedding bells or Christmas trees
His children paddling in the sea
No future, nothing meant to last
Just a brief and transient past
Just a boy
On this sad day reflect with pride
Remember those who sadly died
And pray that peace someday will reign
Their sacrifice be not in vain
Just a boy
Just a boy
Just a boy
By Gordon West
Those who survived the slaughter of the Somme –
recalled each night fiancés, lovers, friends,
or just the boy next door
And each Remembrance Sunday felt an ache
as the last notes of the Last Post
trailed away -
Might have married; but there were too few men.
their children only lived in dreams;
I was one of the lucky ones.
I used to meet them when I was a boy:
Miss Buckle, little Miss Brown,
who taught me how to write;
in Sunday school, or learning the piano;
devoted to another’s children;
maiden aunts who lived at home
caring for parents.
Those who survived the slaughter of the Somme
only through firm resolve found resolution.
Older relatives reflected that there were so many single elderly aunts and cousins because conflict meant there were no men left for them to marry.
My great-uncle, Abraham, was so badly gassed in World War one that when he came back he was unable to work on the farm or in the nearby factory. His family could not afford to support him and he ended his days in a workhouse infirmary. There must have been many more like him whose names are not on any memorial but whose lives were ruined by the war. We remember them.
From a personal perspective I believe that, whilst the 1WW was a horrific example of humanity's inhumanity which we need to repent of, it had a lasting effect on the social order in this country. The fact that officers from the middle and upper classes fought alongside men from the lowest strata in society facing the same risks and having to depend on one another led to realisation that we have a common humanity. Also the mobilisation of women in essential public services and industry meant that women found a new sense of empowerment and the suffrage movements were finally taken seriously.
The most obvious change came with the 1918 Representation of the People Act which widened suffrage, giving all men over 21 and some women, notably householders, the vote. Women finally getting equality of suffrage in 1928.
On a personal note my family suffered from the economic depression that came in the 1920s. My paternal grandfather was in a reserved occupation as a miner in South Yorkshire and did not, therefore, serve in the 1WW. He was involved in the General Strike and the family felt the full effect of poverty at that time. Then he had an accident in the pit in the early 1930s and was unable to continue in the pits (no compensation - just given his cards!). He had to move to the city of Bradford to be able to get casual employment on a regular basis. My father was unable to go to Grammar School because his parents could not afford the uniform and had to leave school at 14 to help support the family despite being regularly top of his class.
However, the social and attitudinal change that happened during the post war period, gradually permeated through politics and I am sure that these found their full effect post-WW2 in such major and radical events as the setting up of the the Butler Education Act of 1944 and the National Health Service.
It was really my generation of the 'working class' which was able to reap the benefits of the social changes which had their root in Victorian reforms, were strengthened by the mobilisation of the nation of the 1WW and came to the fore through the poverty and inequality of the depression and the horror of discovering that the 1WW was not the war to end all wars.
Arthur Hall Willett 1885 – 1918
My Uncle Arthur was conscripted to serve in France, where he was killed on 19th September 1918. His memorial stone there contains the lines of the hymn “Jesu lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly”
In 1927 his sister Mary wrote a sympathy letter to her cousin in Australia saying “I know when we heard that Arthur had been killed it seemed as though we should never get over it.”
In the living room of the family home was an enlarged photograph of him in uniform. This certainly impressed me as a child.
John William (Bill) Willett 1890 – 1965
Bill was the second Willett son and also conscripted to service in France. He returned safely, but hardly to a life free of conflict. He resumed work underground in Snibstone pit where he spent the nights for the next forty years. During the day he was a bookmakers ‘runner’. His collection of bets along the 1½ mile route into Coalville. By the time he boarded the bus home two hours later he was a little unsteady on his feet. Bill was very sociable and offered to pay the fares of fellow passengers. On one occasion he faced the Magistrates for taking a bet from a plain clothed Policeman but his ‘employer’ paid the fine.
A larger problem was a lifelong conflict with his 3 sisters, all remaining in the family home and completely disapproving of his lifestyle. The younger of the three (a church member) cared for him – with meals and washing. His mother, on her deathbed in 1943, left the house to the daughters providing there was always a home for Bill.
The 3 sisters and my father were all total abstainers, my dad signing the pledge of the Band of Hope, aged seven, and never departing from it for the rest of his life. He too was conscripted in 1916 but deemed fit only for clerical work in England.
Inevitably Bill was involved with the disappointments and let-down of the Peace and had no doubt willingly shared in the 1926 General Strike and the struggles of pitmen. He was very critical of Winston Churchill and joined in blaming him for Gallipoli. He never ceased to revere Jesus Christ as the first great socialist.
I share these recollections of just one of many such families. In this case 3 sisters and 2 brothers missed out on marriage – the brothers never feeling rich enough in the depression to commit themselves to wives.
Even my mother’s parents felt the wounds of war. In 1917 when in Wolverhampton on war work, their second daughter caught diphtheria and died. My uncle was born to them in 1923 – I recall his visit with my parents when he was on leave from the Royal Navy in May 1942. He brought me jellies as I spent 6 weeks in bed with pneumonia. I also recall the morning in December 1942 when my mother read the telegram informing her that he had been killed by a submarine off Start Point in Devon. She was alone with me at the time and quickly went across to her mother-in-law for comfort and support.
It is not easy to paint a bright picture of resolution and hope from reflections on just a couple of families, but all too typical of their generation.
At university the head of the History Department recalled in his lectures his own experience in World War One – a best friend had been killed on 11th November 1918. Professor Hughes in 1959 closed his series of lectures on a very pessimistic view of the prospects for peace – not unjustified in view of the Cuban Missile crisis three years later.
Our little village sent its share,
Our young lads responded to the call of our king,
To go and fight somewhere over there,
Let’s see what Christmas will bring.
The troop trains passed over Doe Hill Bridge,
To take our lads to some far off ridge,
Where will they be at the end of the day?
Safe and sound we could only pray.
The Bible Class has severely diminished,
The Printing Press has completely finished,
Churchwarden, organist and bell ringers too,
Have gone to war, just to mention but a few.
The Cricket Club, Football Team are not exempt,
They all now sharing some soaked drenched tent,
Practising with guns that once were toys on Salisbury Plain,
The sergeant likes to make a lot of noise, and really is a pain.
The lads wrote home to give the state of play,
We went to Church parade last Sunday,
We wore our uniform with pride,
Did you have Scholar’s tea at Whitsuntide?
We were billeted in France with the Scots and Greys,
Sorry I shall not see you for a while, this war has caused delays,
We are in the thick of it now; it will not get better,
Please send a football if you get my letter.
News from the lads were put in our Church magazine,
They talked of places they dreamt they would never have seen,
Places that had once been so beautiful, now reduced to rubble,
The parcels you send are much enjoyed, thank you for your trouble.
As night creeps in we shall march, we cannot stop,
We do not know where the next bombardment will drop,
Resting by day in sludge filled trenches, filled with rats and mice,
A little chocolate would be nice.
We’re drenched to the skin; we haven’t washed for weeks,
So exhausted no one speaks,
Our Captain died last night; there seems so little hope,
Please send a bar of soap.
Alive in hospital so many of our lads are dead,
An English nurse talks to me and sees that I am fed,
Her voice is kind and writes letters home for me,
I send you forget-me-nots, I wish I could see.
Our little Village gave its share of lads to go to war,
To fight on some strange foreign shore,
Ypres, Hooge, Sierra Leone and on and on,
A million souls were lost at that place called Somme.
One by one they brought them home,
Shell shocked, gassed and blown,
For those who lived the memories hard to bear,
But we had given our Village share.
By S Froggatt
Soon after the end of the war came the depression, mass unemployment and the General Strike. The lethal consequences of the mishandling of the aftermath of the war in the Peace of Versailles contributed to the rise of Nazism in Germany and the approach of another, greater conflagration. Yet the Second World War somehow sits more easily in our memory. Although just as terrifying and brutal, the cause seemed just. The moral case for fighting Hitler seems to us much stronger than it had been for fighting the Kaiser.
Like most myths, this one has a degree of truth in it. I wonder whether it resonates particularly with us now, at a time when young men and women are fighting and dying in Afghanistan, for a cause which is not immediately obvious?We have been fed a rich diet of First World War poetry, much of it responding to the horror and pity of war, and starkly challenging contemporary conventions and ways of thinking. One thinks particularly of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action a week before the Armistice. Yet the first edition of Owen’s poems, prepared for publication by his friend Siegfried Sassoon in December 1920, sold only 730 copies. A further 700 copies, printed in 1921, were still not sold out by 1929. By then the collected poems of another poet, Rupert Brooke, who also died during the conflict, had rune to 300,000 copies. Brooke’s poetry provided consolation: death in battle was noble and fitting; the gentle, nostalgic patriotism of his poems brought solace to many who were left behind. Owen, by contrast, only became popular in the 1960s.
We are told of the ‘lost generation’ – yet the losses, large as they were, proved to be little more than a blip in demographic terms. The influenza epidemic that swept through Europe and America in 1918-19 killed more people than the First World War, and by the mid-1920s the population of Britain, like those of other belligerents, was recovering to its pre-war levels.