As a teenager I loved Autumn. Harvest was over, autumn sown crops were in the ground, and it was time to tidy up for winter. Most years this involved spending three or four weeks laying hedges, checking fences and digging out ditches to ensure they were all clear for the winter run off.
This year as we approach the 100th anniversary of the ending of ‘The Great War’, I was reminded of this. Each year ‘Old Bert’, as he was known to all, would come back to the farm for a few weeks to help with these tasks. He was a veteran of that conflict. Together he and I would set out in the morning to clear and cut and peg and hammer and dig.
He never spoke much of that war; well, not about the actual fighting. The scars that it had left him with couldn’t be hidden. Over breaks for a cup of tea or lunch, he would speak bitterly of the politicians of the time; angrily about the generals that sent boys to war and into skirmishes or battles they were not prepared for; and sadly of all who died. The way he spoke, at times you could imagine that for him the ordinary soldiers of both sides were a joint army that lost a war, to an army comprising all the generals and politicians of both sides.
Having been bombed out of his home in the Second World War, Bert lived a quiet life with his wife in a prefab home built immediately after that war to address the housing need. His friends, he told me, had all joined up on the same day as he had. They had joined the same company in the county regiment, trained together, and gone to war together. He lived a quiet life because he had had no friends left, nor sought any more, since April 1918.
When he talked of the war, he would tell me, “it was hell”. He would turn away to try and mask the pain on his face. The few times he mentioned his friends he never did that, nor did he wipe the tears away – perhaps that would have been to deny them.
On Sunday we will attend the service of remembrance at the local memorial as we do each year. I never knew Bert’s friends, any more than I knew my great uncles who came back from Australia to fight – but we will remember them; and him.