It’s hard for me to believe that tomorrow is the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Sixty thousand British casualties on that one day alone, plus innumerable French and German soldiers. Nearly a million more in the dreadful and bloody months which followed.
I grew up knowing survivors of this dreadful battle. Knowing that everyone who fought in the Great War is now gone is something that takes a lot of getting used to. They were still there – though they seldom talked about their experiences – when I was younger.
I remember one veteran, the blue scars from old bullet wounds still livid on his arm. I remember talking to him in the street when a car backfired. Fifty years after the battle. But at the sound he threw himself down on the ground.
It wasn’t unusual. The old man who came to our house to tune the piano, when I was a boy, was blinded in the Great War. Seeing old men blind, or with amputations, or gasping for breath from the effect of being gassed wasn’t unusual when I was growing up.
My grandfather, Joseph Bainbridge, fought in the Great War and survived. His brother-in-law, my great-uncle Harry Howl Jeffs, was killed in action just a fortnight before the Armistice in 1918.
Those soldiers who survived and came home to dear old Blighty were, by and large, treated appallingly. Having fought for their country they were treated like dirt. Many succumbed during the long years of poverty and unemployment which came with the so-called peace.
It was probably always so with returning soldiers. The Land Fit For Heroes and their families has never materialised, though the country did better in 1945 with the creation of the NHS and the Welfare State.
A considerable number of the men and women sleeping on the streets of modern-day Britain are ex-services. Cast aside once more.
The world didn’t learn from the Somme, of course. The War to End Wars wasn’t. Twenty-four years later my father was in khaki fighting Hitler. Hardly a year has passed since 1916 when a British soldier hasn’t been killed in action.
So let’s remember the men who fell in the Great War and try to do better.