A few years ago I spent a morning with Harry, a retired soldier from Cheshire. (I was going to tape him, but eventually decided that my little tape machine might be intrusive. Now I wish I had. Voices matter.) The plan was for him to tell me his memories of the town’s drill hall (now demolished). He was all ready for me with his scrapbook, and he’d done a copy for me. I guess he was in his eighties – he was certainly alive in 1926 – and very alert. Immediately he launched into a description of what was behind all the windows in the photos of the drill hall, so whoa! until I’ve got a pen, please! And his wife set to making cups of tea (not army strength, thank goodness) as she was obviously used to his nostalgia. I was glad I’d taken her a nice bunch of flowers.
Harry showed me all his pictures of the drill hall. All. When it was being knocked down, he went into the wrecked building and found the cupboard where they’d stored all the local newspaper pictures of events there, and he’d taken them, knowing they were of no value to anyone else. So there were pictures of civic dignitaries doing civic things, cutting ribbons, etc, or volunteers building a new bar; they’re all from the 1950s and are dressed like Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend or those knitting patterns of men in gauche hand-knits, smoking pipes very expressively. There was one photo I liked, which was in the dark demonstrating a 40s search light, Home Guard-like, lighting up the town hall (which is ghastly, like a muddy wedding cake), but I didn’t want to ask for too much.
What I wanted to see was Harry’s Great War photos of the TA men just before the war, training, the men who’d have used the Drill Hall. Men? Some are boys… there’s one of the volunteers from the local village strolling down a country lane, cheerfully like lads off to the football. And one of stretcher bearers carrying a wounded man in Passchendaele, and one of the men is Harry’s friend’s dad. There are seven men. The eighth stretcher bearer is on the stretcher. He sent me copies of the photos. There was a sad little gallery of a couple of local spinsters, who had been engaged to young men before the War. Auntie Louisa, always on her own in his family photos.
I knew Harry had been in the first wave of D-Day at Sword, so I encouraged him to talk about that. It helped that I’ve been several times to the Beaches. Off he went upstairs and his wife and I could hear rummaging, and he emerged with his photo albums and we got talking. He’d been back on the 50th Anniversary and other times, so had plenty of pictures. I could say, oh, that’s the parachutist at St-Mère Eglise, or oh, that’s the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches, or oh, that’s the memorial at St-Aubin and he respected that, so he began to talk about D-Day itself. Memories of … awful things. Writing morphine doses on the foreheads of severely injured friends whom they’d had to leave in the hope that the medics would pick them up, shuddering recalling a Churchill tank flamethrowing directly through the slits in a German bunker which was enfilading them and the men in flames running screaming out.
Harry was silent. He’d pressed ‘play’ on the film in his mind.
Afterwards, he said that he’d not told anyone about all that for years, usually he clammed up, and his wife agreed.
I felt privileged. And excited. At first I was thinking, this is the same old stuff that all veterans tell you, but, as usual, once you talk and they’re off script you get the really interesting and personal memories. What came out really strongly to me was the intense feeling that they knew that they were making history and that if it didn’t work, there wouldn’t be another chance. I dare say the Germans in the bunkers knew the same, that so much hung on their defence. The anger some feel about the Dieppe raid’s waste of humans is acute; here was an old man telling me about something unprecedented which absolutely could not be allowed to be a waste. It was an experience such a young man should never have known.
Talking to people like Harry is very precious. Thanks, Harry.
Update. Harry died in January, 2019, aged 93. His wife predeceased him. In 2016, Harry visited the grave of his colleague in Hermanville War Cemetery for the first time. His colleague had been killed in his sight carrying radio equipment on to the beach.