Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The Horror

I've been thinking about the way Great War veterans never talked about their experiences. It's puzzling. Like a conspiracy, except that with conspiracies there are always rebels. Then I remembered how at boarding school no one ever told their families about bad stuff that happened.

If this seems like a really crass comparison, it's not intended. The vicissitudes
of the boys' preparatory schools of those days bear no similarity to life in the trenches. Or very little, and not in the same degree. But the discipline, restrictions, discomfort, injustice and fear was so alien to our home lives that we seemed to inhabit two different worlds. Heaven and Hell, if you like. And some instinct made us want to protect our mothers and sisters from the unconscionable realities; from the loneliness, the bullying, the beatings, the perverted fumblings of damaged staff, the cold, the food. Our fathers had been through the same system and must have known; their silence was manly and complicit, like veterans of earlier wars.

Our weekly letters home were vetted and censored, but even if they had not been, we would not have told. Instead we wrote of the cheerful and mundane; of cricket matches and half-holidays, of the weather and...well, that was about it. At the end of term, in the car on the way home after twelve weeks away, they would ask, 'How was the term?', and we would reply, 'All right'. Locking it all away in a dark vault of our minds; looking forward instead to the sunlit uplands of the holidays.

We were fully aware of the parallels between boarding school and POW camps - German ones, anyway. In fact, any prisoners of war who had attended an English boarding school would have been well-prepared. From time to time unhappy boys even planned and executed escapes, although they were almost always caught, turned in by a stationmaster or picked up by police as they tramped along a road verge (we weren't allowed money, and our uniform of herringbone tweed shorts and jackets, besides giving us chapped legs, screamed 'escapee!'). If we could have, we'd have lined the drive and cheered as they were escorted back, except the drive was out of bounds. And we'd have been shot.

I was only 8 when I left home. Some were younger. I no longer feel resentment about being sent away, although I did at the time. It was just the way things were. Parents made sacrifices to do it and it hurt them too. No doubt the education was good; no doubt it made us self-reliant. And these things were the exception rather than the rule; I'm sure such schools are very different now. But we were unworldly children from sheltered homes, and the cold, curtainless, carpetless, draconian life of bells and rules and dormitories was not a comforting one. Even if we could have afforded the fees, I didn't need much persuasion to send our children to day schools. They've never complained.

Anyway, I believe the men who had experienced the horrors of that war concealed them not only from convention and because they wanted to forget them, but also because they felt that resurrecting those experiences would pollute and corrupt the sacred home life they had lost and then, against all odds, regained.


  1. I think you are probably right that they did not want to pollute their home lives.....and also that maybe for some things there just are no words? I thought the image of those three ancient vets in wheelchairs carrying wreaths was incredably moving.
    On the subject of boarding schools, I luckily did not suffer that fate, but having read lots of stories I have NEVER understood why people would do that to their kids! As you said, the fathers at least MUST have know what it was like. Did you ever asked your father about it? Glad to hear you are not putting your own children through it. Although its probably true that such schools are completely different now. Well, they would HAVE to be really!

  2. Well written piece. An avid reader you might have seen the book "Celandine" by Steve Augarde?

    For those who didn't, herewith a short description of a lovely book which I once got at a book sale:

    Celandine is the sequel to The Various.Celandine is a young girl living in England during World War I. Her brother has been killed and she is devastated by the loss. Celandine’s story begins with her running away from her horrible boarding school and heading for the secret hiding place of the Various, tiny creatures that live in the bramble near her home. She turns to them for safety but all is not well with the different tribes; they are nearing a war of their ...


  3. Both my grandfathers fought in WWI (in the navy); I only ever knew one of them but never spoke about it. My father was in the Navy in WWII and never spoke about it either. Both were full of naval stories - they both did over 20 years service - about all sorts of silly things that happened, but neither wanted to talk about the serious stuff, like actual battles they had been in, though I know both were in a number. My father even wrote out a short history of his service and managed actually not to mention the war.

    Perhaps, like you coming home from school, once they were actually out of it all they wanted to do is put it as far away from your life as possible.

  4. Your comparison to POW camps is interesting.I went to a Catholic boarding school for girls in the US in the sixties. I was only 6 and stayed until I was 9, when my mother felt I could be a latchkey kid. I understood why she sent me. She was a working, single parent. The boarding part was dreadful. I'm writing about it on my blog, Girls Sent Away,

  5. I think a lot less talking about difficult stuff happened back then. There wasn't the sharing, counselling culture then. It was very definitely about the Stiff Upper Lip. My grandfather never talked about the war - or only jolly type stories.

    My daughter was a boarder - although she chose to do so initially. I think having an overabundance of small brothers at home and the foulness of my cooking might have influenced her decision. She always seemed to enjoy it but I am sure there were tough, lonely times although she has never mentioned any. Certainly the accommodation was far from spartan.

  6. Both my great grandfather and my grandfather fought in WWI and WWII respectively and though I never knew the former I have it on good authority that he was as taciturn about his experiences as the latter. Even now, half blind, his memory loosening its hold on details, my grandfather talks very infrequently about the hardships and deprivations he undoubtedly suffered - his talk is about the friends he made, the friends he lost, coming home on leave. never about the fighting. Never about the 5 medals that he keeps locked away in a drawer and never explains how he earnt them.

  7. "Sunlit uplands of the holidays."
    Thanks for this well thought/written post. You allow me to taste a life very different from my own. An improvement on merely reading a Waugh novel!
    Much Aloha from Waikiki-

  8. Justme - I don't think we ever did talk about it. Later I went on to the same school he had been to. He had hated that, but believed it had changed. I enjoyed it more, so perhaps it had.

    Extra Virgin - Thanks for the tip; I'll look out for 'Celandine' and Steve Augarde.

    Completely - Actually my maternal grandfather (a gunner in WWI) wrote a memoir which covered that war, but not until the 1960s. And my father, who like yours was in the navy in WWII, did set down a brief account of some of his wartime adventures, again 40 years later. But both these accounts focused on events and the factual. Nevertheless, I'm very glad indeed to have them. Perhaps 40 years is the period that must pass before one can revisit such events?

    Delia - Your project sounds very interesting, and I hope I can follow it. I don't know what your experiences were, but in the past Catholic schools have not won the best of reputations over here or in Ireland. That said, my wife went to a convent as a day girl, and found it an unthreatening if not very cerebral place.

    RB - Your daughter sounds like one of those happy and well-adjusted people who thrived in boarding schools. Bet she was captain of hockey and lacrosse!

    Steve - Persevere! If you could persuade him to let you admire the medals you could learn a lot; the campaign ones would tell you which theatres he served in, and so on. Sadly I don't think the records are online yet; you have to go to the National Records Office at Kew or somewhere.

    Cloudia - I haven't read Waugh for ages, but used to love them! I shall have another go.

  9. A perfectly logical comparison BT and one where there seem indeed to be many parallels.

    Plus in the past it was seen as weakness for a man to show his emotions and there was very much a tendancy to 'protect' the fairer sex and children at the time too.