Thoughts on the First World War by a 21st Century Girl
I must again draw to a close although writing you seems to bring us near each other. Trusting this finds you in the very best health. Wishing to be remembered to all inquiring friends. Kiss the dear children for me & tell Winnie to kiss Mummy for Dada.
- Sapper Richard Thomas, September 21st 1915, Rouen, France
Around about last September, I had an epiphany; that I was twenty-four, that I would be twenty-five the next July, and then that July would turn into August 2014.
That handsome chap up there is my great-great-grandfather Richard Thomas. He was also twenty-four when he called to war in 1914; twenty-five when he wrote the letters to his wife that live on as photocopies in my bedroom drawer. “My dear wife,” he writes, worrying why he hasn’t received a letter from her recently. “Write as soon as you get this and let me know how you are getting on.” He details the minutiae of his life, his trade as a gardener now put to building tunnels under enemy lines. “Dear Girl, I am thinking much of you and the dear ones.” His three children, baby Dulcia among them, born 2nd July 1914 and barely a year old as he sends his love in “kisses for the children.”
Dulcia. Granny Dulcie. My great-grandmother. I know Richard Thomas through the touch of her papery hand on mine.
I came to the First World War late. History GCSEs were improperly advertised as all Hitler all the time; it took my English A-Level to start the fire with names like Brooke, Graves, Sassoon, and Owen. My grandma sent me a fuschia pink binder full of photocopied letters and a sepia photograph. My mother bought me poetry books. Was it for this the clay grew tall? they asked. O, what made fatuous sunbeams toil to break earth’s sleep at all?
These days I’m the kind of girl who visits the Imperial War Museum for her birthday and schedules social time around BBC Two docu-dramas (thanks, iplayer); but despite Richard, despite the worn pages of my poetry books, the grasp I thought I had on the conflict – on the real, solid, beating heart of it – wasn’t half so good as I thought it was. Not until that thought, flowering from the back of my head.
I was angry with the government, as I often am; with the systematic disenfranchisement of the people around me as I struggled to find a place in the world without middle-class, baby-boomer wages to fall back on. Expensive education, high unemployment, low wages, astronomic rent and house prices. The youth had been disenfranchised, and I was angry. Angry to be turning twenty-five in that kind of world.
Twenty-five. It struck me without much fanfare or warning that I would be the same age Wilfred Owen was when he died at the Sambre–Oise Canal in France, seven days before the end of the war. The same age as Richard when he was killed at Fricourt on the 1st December 1915.
I thought about my friends, about the lives we’d be living. The boys, in their mid-twenties, would be hurtling towards a horror they couldn’t control. The girls would be building bombs, tending wounds, and mourning their husbands. If I stood in a tube carriage full of rush hour commuters, how many of them would survive? How many of the people I walked past in the street every day would be going off to war, or the factory, or the grave?
And me? Married? A mother? An old spinster? A suffragette handing out white feathers to shell-shocked young men?
I thought about Richard. He and nine other men were killed when a mine hit, burying them in the tunnel they were digging. “Lt. H. L. Twite and 9 men were killed,” wrote the commanding officer in his field diary. “Five being caught in the crushed galleries, two gassed while escaping, and the officer and two men were crushed in the collapse of the shaft lodgement.” Lieutenant Twite’s watch stopped at 8pm, the moment of their death.
I thought about Richard’s daughter, my Granny Dulcie. The last time I saw her I was six years old. I remember her lying in bed, the very picture of old save for the shine of her teeth in a smile and the smart twinkle in her eye. Mostly I remember her laughing.
Perhaps it’s that circling, inward kind of thought that gets my generation labelled as self-interested, turning the First World War into an About Me; but I’ve never felt the impact of it like I did in that moment, knowing how lucky I am by one hundred years exactly. Knowing that my flesh and blood, buried in a field in France, did not get the same chance as me.
I wonder, sometimes, and worry – how do we connect this generation to their centenary ghosts? If someone with so much genuine interest has had such a slow realisation, how do we provoke that depth of feeling in kids who have to learn Sassoon by rote for an A grade or twenty-somethings with more immediate concerns like paying their rent? How do we connect them to the kids lying about their age to sign up or the too-young officers writing condolence letters back to Blighty? How do they follow the lines back, back, back?
In today’s screen age of the 21st Century, where social media is king, the image is visceral, and the self is isolated, perhaps these are the avenues we need to take to make the ghosts live. There’s @roadtowar1914, a twitter account that chronicles the events of the war as they happen(ed). Ever trusty, the BBC have launched a comprehensive multimedia programme across television, radio, and online that will span the next four years. There are hashtags, podcasts, and interactive study resources. They even liveblogged the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Horrible Histories are back with a centenary special. BBC Three have adapted their BAFTA-winning documentary series Our War into Our World War, a drama series recreating the former’s handheld head-cam style to bring the trenches into live-action-roleplay detail, bridging the gap between the generation it depicts and the generation it’s made for. For children often admonished for not connecting, perhaps we’re doing okay.
Then again, perhaps we just need to pick up a letter and read it.
I still wonder if the choking empathy of that realisation can exist in the world at large as we celebrate/commemorate. Does imagining your parents, your siblings, your friends, yourself as you would be but for a century here or there ever really get close?
I suppose, in the end, outside of the pages of our history books, it comes down to the fact that the First World War is made up of living, breathing, bleeding humans, just the same as we. If we can understand that then, perhaps, in some small way, it could be enough.