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.