I was born on Armistice day. I became aware of the importance of the day early in life. Many of my memories of childhood involve my great grandfather, a very elderly man, bespectacled, who I remember wearing an ochre coloured cardigan. He had been at the Somme, won the DSO for valour – had manned a gun after his leg was blown off. He was cared for by my granny, his daughter in law, and as a child I remember him always being there – seated on a high backed chair in my granny’s house.
And then he died.
My mother got the phone call one school morning. She was in tears at the foot of our stairs. We didn’t know what to say, what to do. We patted her arm, cried because she cried.
He died before I got to know him. His chair was empty when next we visited, aside from a fat green frog filled with beans. Someone spilled a drink on the frog and the beans swelled, one leg twice, three times, the size of the other.
I think about him sometimes; wear my poppy from the 1st November every year until Remembrance Sunday or armistice day, whichever is later, for him.
I learned a bit about his time in the army, and in trying to understand read about the First World War, about the madness, the waste. And then I discovered the poetry: Owen; Sassoon; Graves; Rosenberg; but always I would come back to Owen. There is something appealing about his work for an adolescent. The anger and bitterness of Sassoon permeating aspects of his work; his time in Craiglockhart and his illness explaining more.
I’ve read Owen again this week – as I do every year. And I remember.
So for armistice day tomorrow, one of the lesser known pieces by Owen.
Down the close darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.
Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent;
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild train-loads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to village wells
Up half-known roads.