My Grandad used to try and catch us between his feet when we walked past him. Filled with just the right amount of fear and trepidation, I’d summon up all my childish courage and try to reach the other side of the room without him catching me. I never managed it.
He had brown weathered skin from years working outside as a builder, a tattoo that said ‘Mary’ even though my Nan’s name was Annie, and he always wore slippers. When my mum was young, he used to do the washing up when it was her turn so that she didn’t have to. Legend has it he once dangled a dead mouse through the window to frighten one of my Aunties while she was having a wash. And the love he had for my Nan drew from her the most tenderness I ever saw her express.
He also hated Remembrance Day.
Born in 1918, he was 21 when World War Two broke out. I know far less than I’d like to about his time during the war. I do know that he met my Nan while on active service. His step-sister, Evelyn, was her best friend and she persuaded my Nan to write to him while he was in the army abroad. When he came home after his demob, they started going out.
three weeks later, he told her they’d be getting married on 14 November 1944. He never proposed, just went ahead and got a special license. Gobsmacked, my Nan went along with it (which was more than a little out-of-character!) but she never regretted it during the fifty years they spent together. He taught her to dance; she said he was a very good dancer.
I also know that he drove a tank. Family legend tells how, while learning to drive it in Wales, he crashed his tank straight through a pub wall. He must have been desperate for a pint… His army training eventually took him to North Africa, Italy and Israel. He was a gunner. While abroad, he befriended a dog which followed him around everywhere he went. When he had to leave, knowing he couldn’t take it with him but unable to abandon it, he felt he had no choice but to shoot it. That must have broken his heart; he loved animals.
I never heard him speak in any detail about what he’d seen or done during his time in the army, but I know it shaped his view of war and I know that the hell he saw mankind throw at one another made it difficult for him to believe in any kind of loving God.
Recently, I have discovered that his own experiences weren’t the first time he had seen the effects of war. His father, my great grandfather, Richard Heggie served in the Royal Lancashire Regiment and the Labour Corps during World War One. He went to France on 4 September 1915, aged 28, leaving his wife, Rose, at home about to give birth to their first child. By the end of the war, he had gained three medals and lost the use of his legs through shell shock. Confined to a wheelchair, his relationship with Rose grew increasingly strained, eventually reaching the point of collapse, and life was hard. He received a weekly pension of £3 2s 6d, the equivalent of approximately £115.56 today. Born in 1918, my Grandad never knew his father before war had broken him and robbed him of his potential; the aftermath of war, the physical and emotional scars, were what my Grandad grew up with.
And having discovered all of this, I understand why I never saw my Grandad wear a poppy. I understand why he resented the necessity of charity to look after fallen servicemen, why he felt so strongly that when a country sends its young men off to war and they come home wounded and broken, that their country should have the decency to look after them.
And I understand why he came to hate the pomp and the ceremony and the glory and the heroism attached to Remembrance Day. Because he said that when he saw his friends die around him, when he saw what humanity inflicted on one another, there was no glory and there was no victory and there was no heroism in that. There was no heroism in those violent deaths, no willing giving up of lives; they were men, ordinary men, each of them desperately wanting nothing more than to emerge from their hellish experience as unscathed as possible and return home to their wives, children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends.
My Grandad was and is my closest link to the horrors of war. His experiences are part of who I am. And I don’t understand why, following World War One, and World War Two, and the peace treaties, and the establishment of the United Nations, and the talk of “Never again” and “The war to end all wars” – I don’t understand why we still do it to each other.
But I do understand why my Grandad didn’t buy and wear a red poppy, or join in with formal acts of remembrance on Armistice Day and lay wreaths at the war memorial. Because for him, all of that didn’t fit with the memories he had to remember. But he did remember. Even though he didn’t wear a poppy. How could he not?
I am not against the red poppy – my daughters have both supported the poppy campaign at school and I see the value in much of the work carried out by the Royal British Legion.
But on Remembrance Day, I will choose to wear a white poppy for peace because for me, that fits. It fits with my Grandad, with his memories of the horrors he saw, and with my Great Grandad. Their stories will be passed on to my children and I hope that they will both
grow up to be advocates for peace.
And although my poppy will be white, not red, in my own, quiet, unceremonial way, I will remember them. My Grandad. His friends. His father. And all those – soldiers and civilians – who have been ravaged by our inability to stop killing one another. And I will pray for peace.