OF THOSE WE LOVED
A Great War Narrative Remembered and Illustrated
By IL ‘Dick’ Read
Published by Pen & Sword
ISBN: 978 1 78159 101 7
Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online.
There is a point to all this, so bear with me. My grandfather Gordon died in 1941. I don’t know exactly how. It might have been the explosion of the mine that killed him instantly, or perhaps he drowned, unconscious, or worse, he was alive as the ship settled in the shallow freezing cold water off Tynemouth. I don’t know. He was 48 years old and in an earlier war he’d been on the old dreadnought Canopus bombarding Johnny Turk at Gallipoli and he doesn’t half look good, a cocky little bantam in his navy whites, smoking a fag. He had his whole life ahead of him – but then he didn’t, did he? His widow, my gran, who he married in 1911 didn’t die until 1980. She was a bit loopy most of the time I knew her and would never speak of him and nor would my Dad. So Gordon is just photos, some brilliant letters and his medals in a little box we keep in the bureau in our dining room. But he is treasured and he has a gallery on my Facebook page For Your Tomorrow. Gordon lives. My grandfather on my mother’s side is a complete mystery because families sometimes do that, don’t they? I don’t even know his name for sure. If he fought in the Great War, I could not tell you. And so I had to spread my search further afield. When I was a little lad I was brought up for some of the time by a sweet old couple who were devoted to each other. They had met during the war and if I have it right he was on leave in the city of my birth and she was on her afternoon off from her work in service for some big family or other and they saw each other in a park and that was that. It sounds like something out of Downton Abbey. Uncle Jim stayed with us once when she was away and I remember seeing him only one time without his shirt on. He had loads of marks on his body – shrapnel wounds – and he said to me something like “Son, whatever you do, don’t you ever get any of these.” And that, dear reader; is the sum of my Great War experience from someone dear to me. Jim died in 1972.
We are blessed that other men put pen to paper and told their stories so that those of us who lost their grandparents early or just didn’t get to hear any of their experiences can adopt a surrogate, if you will, and hold others to our hearts. I know that sounds odd – but if you do the sensible thing and read this copper plated masterpiece by Dick Read you will know exactly what I mean. I have been totally bogged down trying to write this review, finding the correct approach has been impossible until now. But then I realised the clue is in the title. Dick does all the work for me.
A great friend of mine was at a charity dinner recently and came back in an ebullient mood. It was a fantastic occasion and the event raised a pile of cash for our boys and girls suffering from the adverse effects of modern conflict. None of this seems new to us any more, does it? And yet this particular charity was set up during the Great War. My friend was quick to tell me he had been sitting with a gentlemen who had been in an interested party in Her Majesty’s Government’s deliberations how best to commemorate the centenary of the Great War and he had come away deeply depressed. The war is set to be remembered for it’s disasters – the Somme, Passchendaele, and the Lusitania; bookended by the start and finish. There is no room for other major events – Mons, the Marne, Jutland, Messines, Cambrai, Arras, the Hundred Days, Jerusalem – or even other nasties – such as Loos, Kut or Gallipoli. There will be lots of poetry. My point is this series of commemorations is already being wrapped up in how a narrow group interpret the war for you. The middle men are everywhere. They’ve read Pat Barker and seen Blackadder. One staff officer has jumped over another staff officer’s back. After all, they were only playing leapfrog. Perhaps one of them has taken the trouble to note that the lions led by donkeys were actually from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 – but someone will tell you they came from the Crimea and I’m sure there is a Roman legionary who knew of them if we delve deep enough.
Avoid all this. Go back to those proud men who have walked through the ether of War History Online – the Channel Islander Clarence Ahier and that wonderful Anzac Harold Williams. Take in the excellent Somme Mud by that other Aussie Edward Lynch – a book to cherish, I wish I’d reviewed it for you. What these books have are the unvarnished truth and no middle men interpreting it for you. You might have someone explaining what odd things mean or where they were – but the bullshit is minimal. They usually leave out bits of old language for the PC brigade, but I ask myself, aren’t we supposed to be grown ups? With Dick Read the experience is taken to a whole new level, the man was a wonderful writer and he could paint pictures with words and a brush. His art and photos are a joy. So much of the Great War is expressed for us as pain, destruction and futility. Here Dick reveals a world of mateship, love and hope. A longing for home, heimat, call it what you want wherever you happen to come from. Life is for living. Life is in colour and people are multidimensional beings and they have dreams and spirit and souls. They are not machines. Dick Read fought in terrible battles and saw his friends die. He suffered wounds and went through terrible events. He endured. He progressed. A Lewis gunner, he rose to the rank of sergeant and was picked out for a commission. He transferred from the Leicesters to the Royal Sussex Regiment and led men into battle for the climatic final period of the war when the largest British Army there will ever be won it’s greatest victory ever. Fact. But we will not be commemorating this. Our government have chosen to ignore the Hundred Days – the March to Victory, it is an inconvenient truth. We must stick to the perceived disasters, when that same army was learning how to win against the best army in the world in a new kind of continental warfare.
Dick Read wasn’t there right at the end. He was on leave in London on Armistice Day and for him it was all a bit odd. But he was soon back clearing up the mess and off to Germany to serve in the garrison. He came home to build machines for the shoe industry. He quietly wrote his wonderful story and passed away in 1971. His son Chester managed to get it published in 1994 and this is the long awaited reprint. Dick has a square named after him in the village of Berles in northern France. For me he is an everyman – a very special man – not oppressed by a vision of death and hopelessness, but one filled with a buoyant spirit brimming with fond memories of those he loved. It did not dim through all his days. It remained strong and golden and like him, it shines.
By Mark Barnes, visit his excellent “For your Tomorrow” facebook page