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
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.