A Short Story – Dulche et Decorum by Ann Upfold
In Evington there has been a WW1 project to research and disseminate information about how this ‘War to end all wars’ impacted on people ‘then and now’. The project was funded by a Heritage Lottery grant. Many groups got involved. Ann is a part of the Writers’ group that meet in Evington library every fortnight. This group will continue the project with storytelling events. Ann has used the historical information from this Evington WW1 project to tell her own story about WW1. Later this story and others will be shared with Evington schools.
There was nothing more enjoyable in life, as far as Miss Gibb was concerned, than her daily stroll in the park, providing of course that the weather was not inclement. She had been that morning to the library for the purpose of changing her book and now having selected a volume of poems of the First World War she made her way across the road and cutting across the car park soon found herself strolling past the tennis court and then having reached the path made ready to sit for awhile on a seat. She was quite alone but not lonely. She had herself for company and liked it that way. As the years accumulated she found that in many ways she was her own best friend and after all who knew her better than herself. Deep inside she felt an inner peace and it seemed almost as though somewhere in her mind there was an empty room in which she could sojourn and it was from there that her mingling thoughts and dreams could meander like a river of time, which of late seemed to her, to be all too often in the past but for today she was only too pleased to be within the peaceful security of Evington Park.
It was November and almost exactly one hundred years since the First World War, a fact which had been difficult to ignore of late and it was with a sense of shame that she privately admitted how little she really knew of it; not that she wasn’t grateful to those who lost their lives in that war to end all wars but for all that, she had no inclination towards any kind of empathy on the matter of war. Whatever the cause she could make no sense of it. She recalled the Mozart Opera, The Marriage of Figaro where Cherubino is assured of What a Glorious Thing is War. But why is it ? she asked herself and further more wasn’t everyone the loser!
To Miss Gibb on that particular November morning it was simply the joy of being there and at peace with herself that was the glorious thing.
An Autumnal sun glinted through trees that were so heavily laden with leaves that it was difficult to believe that it wasn’t Spring. The sun was quite the imposter this year with a warmth that fooled even the birds into a medley of song and activity. Squirrels seemed in no hurry to gather their winter stocks and as a gentle breeze whispered across her face she fell once again into her contemplations on that World War of 1914. She did not know to whom she silently prayed for forgiveness but she was forced to admit that recently there had been moments when she could quite cheerfully have committed WW1 to ‘Room 101’. The memories seemed to engulf her every where she went and she had frequently been asked to share her own recollections and that worried her quite considerably as she wondered whether she really looked over a hundred but nevertheless it was strange that she knew so little especially as her early years had been spent with her late Victorian born grand parents but strangely WW1 was never spoken of… perhaps because WW2 by then had overshadowed it. She herself was born in 1942 and recalled limited and quite strange memories such as eating egg powder, being evacuated and losing a favourite Aunt who was killed in Tottenham Court Road by V1 bomb which apparently was the name for Hitler’s vengeance bombs. To be perfectly truthful the egg powder was her only memory the rest were events that had been retold to her.
There was a brown photograph of her paternal grandfather in his WW1 uniform. He was in the Scots Guards and had fought in the trenches. He returned at the end of the war alive but with flat feet because he had been machine gunned in the backs of both legs. Her Uncle Harry who worked for the civil service travelled by train to Kings Cross, daily, from Tring. He had a walk like Douglas Bader because in a similar way he too had tin legs. It was hard to imagine the stamina of such men who, long after the conflict had ended, gallantly fought their own battles by resuming a life of routine and normality. Although curious she never did get to see the painful prosthesis but she knew he had lost both legs in WW1.
Miss Gibb stirred from her thoughts and looked towards the imposing facade of Evington House. She was certain that there were many tales the old house could tell if only it were possible. It had been a centre for the Home Guard in the Second World War and now it transpired that it had also played an important part in WW1. Like many a grand house it had been used as a hospital where injured soldiers were lovingly nurtured back to normality and all too often they were cured only to be sent back to the front line. Sadly many were never cured in spirit and the horrors of the trenches remained for ever in their shell shocked minds. It seemed to Miss Gibb that one need only open the pages of the book of war poems to understand the true misery of the millions of soldiers as they battled for their country and their lives where all was ‘as obscene as cancer, bitter as cud.”
Her eyes became heavy as she read on, digesting the words of Wilfred Owen
‘to children ardent for some desperate glory
the old lie Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori’.
It is sweet and honourable to die for your country…
“but why? ” she cried aloud.
“They fought the war to maintain the life they knew” answered a voice beside her.
She turned to find a gentleman sitting next to her and together they looked across the expanse of park where families walked together..fathers, mothers,grannies, children, using the park as parks are meant to be. Life had been maintained but whether it bore any resemblance to the life those soldiers knew, was doubtful. It would seem strange to them now were it possible for them to return and find that friendships and comradeship was more likely to be on Face Book and those families enjoying the park were not English but of Indian descent. They bore no resemblance to the names on the War Memorial or to anyone in Evington during those conflict years.
“I’m sorry ” she said “I was thinking aloud. She could tell by his form of dress that he was a Sikh and hastily added “I was dreaming of the First World War but you would know nothing of that.”
“Indeed I do” he replied “my grandfather fought in the war along side the British in the Somme. India was amongst the first to rally with the British. At that time India was part of the British Empire and 800,000 Indians fought bravely with the Allied Powers for freedom and peace. My grandfather died in Brighton” he explained ” and on 11th November I shall be going there to find his name on The Chattri . I don’t suppose you know of it.”
Miss Gibb smiled. ” Oh, but you are mistaken. I do. ” she replied ” As a young girl I used to ride my horse along the bridle way and across the South Downs . I would see the Chattri standing white and proud like a giant pepper pot. She had always known that it was a memorial to the Sikh and Hindu soldiers who had lost their lives fighting to preserve the freedom of mankind. Muslim allies were taken to Surrey for their own recognition. My great Aunt was a nurse at the Royal Pavilion when King George V decreed that it should be a hospital for the Indian Soldiers injured in the war. He thought they would feel at home in the Royal Pavilion which as you know was designed in the manner of an ornate Indian Palace.
And, what of her horse who had been so much a part of her youth. He was a large light brown animal known as a Cleveland Bay and resembled in so many ways those used for the officers in France or to pull the gun carriages.So many horses and mules were taken on demand from Britain and never returned at the end. She imagined that some would surely have come from the fields around Evington. If they were the mounts of an officer they were returned in 1918 but the rest, after toiling faithfully through the deep, deep liquid mud of the trenches rescuing the dead and wounded men, were simply left behind in Belgium or France to a life of uncertain out come.
” I suppose I have a different outlook on what is loss. The fact that the greed and stupidity of men can all but extinguish innocent creatures who have done nothing but faithfully serve to the bitter end amidst all that carnage only to be tossed aside like useless toys.”
She glanced at her book of war poems as she added ” and then there is the loss of these … the poets and of course the artists. All cut short in their youth. What a loss is that? oh and the musicians. Don’t you just love the music of composers such as Butterworth… lost to us for ever in the name of power and greed and of that glorious thing called war.”
Mr Gurdeep Sihng smiled quietly at her passionate outburst.
Miss Gibb thought of 11th November and felt sure it would be cold and wet. As far as she could remember it always was and she could recall many excursions with her family in London to stand frozen and wet by the Cenotaph, but for today it was warm and sunny as she sat with her newly found friend and reminisced over their lives. Never had the trees looked so beautiful in Evington Park…so many glorious colours and there seemed nearly as many on the ground. There was a myriad of different hues and in her imagination she pictured the mass of poppies at the Tower of London.
The sun always seemed to shine whenever she came to this park but maybe it was because it was always shining in her heart where deep inside she knew that the peace she felt was there for her because so many brave men had sacrificed their own lives in 1914 to preserve the freedom and peace of the Britain she knew and loved.
Piglet once asked Pooh “How do you spell love?”
Pooh replied “You don’t spell it you feel it.”
Miss Gibb decided that it was exactly the same with peace… you simply feel it in your heart and must always remember to give thanks to those who gave their lives for the honour and glory of
love and peace.