What the First World War means to me

Date on stone memorial 1914-1919

2014 will mark 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. The Chenies Street war memorial dates the end of the First World War as being when the Versailles treaty was signed in 1919. Most commemorations of the War's end use the date 1918.

By Simon Glyndwr John

I read “Our Island Story,” by H E Marshall, when I was about ten years old and began a lifelong love of history and books. Unsurprisingly, history became my best academic subject and within that subject one topic chose me: the First World War (WW1). 

My interest in WW1 developed whilst listening to my parents’ childhood memories and seeing limbless men begging in London’s streets. Throughout my life I have read as many histories, biographies and autobiographies of the conflict that I could buy or borrow from my public library. Because this war was fought worldwide there was always something new to discover, particularly once I started researching in the India Office Library and the Imperial War Museum. The conflict even inspired me to write a novel and a radio drama. Trips to the battlefields gave me perspective and one such trip inadvertently brought me happiness of a different kind.

In late September 1951 I went to a new school by bus travelling past the Cenotaph in Whitehall. In the early 1950s nearly everyone wore a hat and on passing the Cenotaph doffed their headwear. I had to change buses just to the west of the Cenotaph where an old man stood next to the bus stop selling matches out of a tray and beside him, begging, stood a man without an arm. I asked my father who the men were and he replied, “Soldiers from the First World War.” When I arrived at school we congregated in a Hall that contained the portrait of six former pupils who had won the Victoria Cross in the WW1: five soldiers and the captain of a “Q” ship. So despite being born during the Second World War, seeing bombsites everywhere in London, I knew about the earlier conflict at nine years of age.

During the Second World War nobody in my family was killed. Father was a police sergeant at Bow Street police station, one of his brothers, Joe, lost a leg in the battle for France in 1940, and his other two brothers were in the Royal Navy – Jack was sunk at least twice and Stanley was torpedoed on the Murmansk run. This was in contrast to my father’s family fortunes in the WW1. In November 1916 my grandmother’s youngest brother, Stanley Griffiths, a private in the Welsh Regiment, died of his wounds in Swansea after fighting on the Somme. My father, then aged 8, was taken to see his uncle lying in his coffin. When my grandmother saw her brother she said, “I’m going to name the child I am carrying after my brother, if it’s a boy,” and so my uncle was named “Stanley”. Earlier in 1916 my father remembered meeting his mother’s eldest brother, David Griffiths, wearing the blue uniform of a wounded soldier; he’d had a toe shot off in 1915. On 1st July 1916 David, serving in the 2nd Devonshire Regiment, “went over the top,” never to be seen again.

My mother’s family were Londoners and in 1952 my maternal grandfather took my elder sister and me on a visit to Highgate where he was born. Whilst there, we bumped into granddad’s youngest brother, Harry, who had won the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal while serving in the Post Office Rifles as a sergeant. Sadly, I do not remember the meeting but according to my sister the two brothers hardly exchanged a word – both displaying the warmth so typical of that side of the family. My mother remembered that when the Zeppelins came over London in 1918 and the anti-aircraft guns fired, she and her nine siblings hid under the family piano. How they did they all fit?

My father joined the Metropolitan Police in 1929 beginning at Tottenham Court Road Police Station. Many of the men my father served with had survived the trenches. My father, keen to get promotion, was zealous in his duties but he always commented with a smile that the trench survivors he served with were completely different. He said these ex-soldiers were never fazed by anything or anybody, including the strict army discipline espoused by their unpleasant superiors. Apparently these ex-soldiers would stroll benignly around their “beats” with never a care in the world, and never seemed to arrest anybody. When one of these men, Jack Audley, arrested a well known criminal, Rubberbones Johnson, who was waiting in a bus queue, everyone at the station was agog. Johnson had had plastic surgery and looked completely different from his wanted poster. “My powers of observation, honed in the army, came into play,” explained Jack to the amazed station. Amazement faded when it was learnt that a school fellow of Johnson’s had pointed him out to Jack who just happened to be standing day-dreaming near the bus stop.

In the early 1930s my father, injured playing rugby, was waiting outside the police doctor’s office to see whether he was fit for duty. Also waiting apprehensively for the doctor was a policeman who had fought in the trenches. The ex-soldier’s health was being reviewed because he had been off sick three times in the year with chest complaints, and three sick absences were the maximum allowed within a year by the police. Ten years police service earned a small pension and this policeman had served for a few months short of ten years. His chest complaint related directly to his being gassed in the trenches, but he was thrown out of the service that day.

My mother, an avid reader of fiction, possessed only one non-fiction book: R H Kiernan’s biography of TE Lawrence. This was the first adult history book I read, aged about twelve. The book aroused my interest in Lawrence so that whenever a new biography is written about him, I have to read it! About the same time I discovered in a cupboard a collection of the 1930s magazine, “I Was There.” That magazine’s articles were written by veterans about their experiences on air, land and sea during WW1. Its photographs of the Western Front particularly shocked me to see men living in such conditions. Reading the complete collection of the magazine cemented my interest in WW1, but I needed something more substantial.

My local library, Holborn, had a policy that people under 16 could not take out adult books. My father rarely read books and never visited the library so I got him to join it. I then used father’s adult tickets to read all the WW1 books in Holborn Library. Mostly they were the British and Australian Official Histories of the War – not the most excitingly written tomes for someone of twelve or thirteen. But it was a start. Once I started earning a living I began to build my library of books without a thought as to where to put them (still a problem over fifty years later). I usually bought books but once when I was a Polytechnic Computing Lecturer I did some private computing work for a publisher who paid me with four WW1 books.

At first my interest was only in the Western Front but I keep discovering new aspects about the war that have seized my attention. I visited Vienna in 2012 and found “Armenia 1915,” a locally published book in English. This book describes how the Ottoman Empire was enacting ethnic cleansing against the Armenians in 1915. The Armenians appealed to the Ottoman Empire’s Christian Allies for help. Germany ignored the appeal whilst the Austro-Hungarians tried to help the Armenians, but they were too weak to achieve anything. In December 2013 I finished reading Edwin Hoyt’s book, “The Army Without A Country,” that describes how the Czech army fought its way round Russia 1918 -1920 in its effort to secure Czech independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In January 2014 I have begun to read, “When the United States Invaded Russia,” which is the story of the US and Allied Intervention in Siberia. Once I have finished that book then I will read the new biography of President Woodrow Wilson. The subject just seems to grow.

In 1985 the last official history of the Great War was published: “Operations in Persia 1914 to 1919.” What puzzled me was the date “1919.” I was always led to believe that the war finished in November 1918. I began an investigation into the whys and wherefores of a part of the war that I never known anything about, the British involvement in Persia and Central Asia, and why that involvement lasted into 1919. My research began in the files of the India Office, the Army library, the Imperial War Museum library, and the National Archives. Books, of which there were surprisingly few, led me to understand that British policy perhaps was not contradictory but merely that the right-hand and the left-hand had absolutely no clue what each was doing. I made notes of my research initially thinking I might write a history book but changed my mind and decided to write a novel based on the events that occurred in Central Asia during the spring and summer of 1918

The arrival of the internet has had a positive impact on my research. I have been able to find historical papers and writings by historians on websites. I can more easily find books on websites to buy, particularly those which are out of print or are published by specialist publishers and which are not often stocked in bookshop chains.

Over the last thirty years I have written novels and scripts for film, TV and radio. The first thing that I wrote was triggered after I read a book on the cricket matches played between England and the visiting Australian in 1921. This book mentioned that one of the England players, AJ Evans, had written a book called, “The Escaping Club”. After a long search I found a copy of the book which describes ex-RFC pilot Major Evans’ capture and escape from both Germans and Turks. I decided to write a Radio Drama based on A J Evans’ exploits as a WW1 Prisoner–Of-War (POW) and as an England cricketer in 1921. As the Australian cricketers visit the UK every four years I wanted to time the series to coincide with the next tour by the Australians. Whilst Evans’ book was the basis for the series I needed more detailed information. My investigation took me to the IWM library’s collection of POW reminiscences and letters home (none were from Evans). The collection described how, for example, money, maps and wire-cutters were smuggled to the POWs by their mothers. During the Second World War POWs were helped by a specific organisation, MI9, to which Evans belonged. Evans used his experiences to advise how MI9 could help POWs in their life “behind the wire.” Evans also lectured Allied airmen on what to do to evade capture if they were shot down. The first episode of my series described Evans flying over German lines in 1916 under shell-fire, then batting helmetless in 1921 against the Australian fast bowlers, Gregory and MacDonald, whizzing a cricket ball past his nose at about ninety miles an hour. Unfortunately, the BBC rejected my scripts and when I rewrote them as a film script a film producer did the same.

By the early 1990s my historical attention switched wholeheartedly to British involvement in Central Asia in 1918 and I spent Saturday mornings at the India Office library near Waterloo Station investigating official correspondence and the secret papers of men like FM Bailey and R. Teague-Jones. In 2001 I retired and as more books on the subject were being published and the internet had arrived, I decided to use my imagination and write a novel rather than a history book. I abandoned this novel, “The Cotton Spies,” in 2006 to write a sports novel that I self-published in 2011. In June 2013 I began to write a new sports novel but stopped when I realised that I had put too much effort into the “The Cotton Spies” to let it languish. Since June I have been re-writing and editing the novel which I will publish as a free e-book in 2014.

I took my parents to the WW1 battlefields in 1985 as a golden wedding anniversary present. My father was moved to see his uncle’s name commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. My next trip to the battlefields in September 1988 was with a friend, Winston. My journey started with a chance encounter with an American woman on Reading Station. The encounter lasted barely half an hour but led to our marriage the following August. That pleasant interlude was not followed by good weather for the trip to the battlefields. After a dreadful crossing of the Channel, which saw me violently seasick, we spent three days in cold, damp, misty weather. It was Winston’s first trip to the battlefields and he had researched what to see. We stood on Passchendaele ridge. Despite patches of mist, the view to the plain below was amazingly clear. It was no surprise that the Germans could see the Allies’ troop movements; they could probably spot a field-mouse foraging for food. In drizzle we stood by Essex Farm Cemetery where Lieutenant Colonel McRae, wrote his poem, “In Flanders Fields,” following the death of a comrade. We stood at Hyde Park Corner Cemetery by the grave of one of England’s greatest rugby players, Ronnie (Poulton) Palmer.

In August 2013 my cousin in New Zealand found and sent me a copy of a photograph of my two great uncles killed in 1916. Contact with another cousin turned up a torn newspaper notice of my Great Uncle Stanley Griffith’s funeral and where in Swansea he was buried. Now in 2014 I will visit his grave for the first time because he was family and a reminder of how much the WW1 has meant to me.

We must commemorate that the war brought independence to many countries including Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuanian, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. We must commemorate the war for the monumental changes it brought to British Society. First, it gave women them the chance to show they could perform work that was once deemed the prerogative of men. Second, the rigid pre-war class structure was dealt a blow because living in the trenches forced men from all levels to tolerate and understand each other. Finally, we need to commemorate the sheer numbers of men who fought and died as well as those who survived or were maimed in the hope future generations will learn enough not to blunder into what some called this war: “Armageddon”.

Simon Glyndwr John’s historical novel The Cotton Spies was published on 5 February 2014. It is published as a free ebook. He is also author of Queen of Clubs, a novel about rugby.

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