My Turn: I thought that he walked on water . . .

  • John Snowden (right), the grandfather of Peter Evers, fought in World War I with the British Expeditionary Force. Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 5/26/2019 12:35:19 AM

Everybody has heard about the “Silver Tsunami,” and social policy experts spend a great deal of time pondering this impending gloomy future. We hear it constantly. I wonder how that makes our elders feel in America.

They are a group of people who just might see themselves as a burden to the generations after them.

Michael Foot, a British politician, once said that the true measure of a society was not the meddling in other countries’ affairs, not the influence that it has around the world, but more the track record that it boasts in taking care of the ones who cleared a path before.

That got me thinking about my history, or rather those who made my story possible.

In 1981, as a young man, I traveled through the Soviet Union and witnessed a respect for their elders the likes of which I had never seen in my native England.

In Leningrad I watched thousands of survivors of the Siege of Leningrad (where 642,000 people died between 1941 and 1944) walk tall through the streets celebrating peace. These were the redoubtable faces of those left behind, a remarkable group who bore witness to the darkest side of humanity.

I also watched the young lining the streets cheering and in awe of these latter day heroes who refused to bow down to the horrors of Nazi hatred.

When I got home my thoughts turned immediately to my own grandfather.

The Great War

As a kid I was fascinated with his life. He was in the Navy later in life, an engineer, but before that he lied about his age in order to join the British Army to fight in World War I.

Anyone who knows anything about the First World War knows that it was thought of as the “War to End all Wars.”

Granted, as a prediction it left a great deal to be desired, but they did not have knowledge of what evil was to come in a century overshadowed by national socialism, multiple genocides, racism and anti-Semitism, all sponsored by dictators and tyrants.

I was so interested in these experiences as a young person that I sat my grandfather John down and interviewed him for an assignment.

I set about downloading memories of a war that seemed a very long time ago for a kid who had been the beneficiary of two generations of hardship and loss.

The result was that I learned things about war that I had not seen in the stylized movies of the post-Second World War era, which fascinated me as a child.

The history books told the story of the shame of a war fought over pieces of land owned by dilettante princes in Europe, sparked by the assassination of one of their own, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914, by the Black Hand, a Serbian Nationalist secret society. It was an event that dramatically pulled back the curtain on the fragility of multiple alliances, treaties and detents, which had papered over the cracks of a fractured and fractious Europe.

War stories

My grandfather’s narrative was different. He sat back and told me that he was a member of the British Expeditionary Force, 130,000 men who marched, singing, to war promising sweethearts a return by Christmas; only 7,000 returned. Each of his dead friends served up as fodder to experimental artillery and tanks, traded for the blood of young German soldiers in equal numbers.

He told me that he did not remove his boots for three years, and when he returned home his fiancée had to cut them from his feet, the skin having emerged as small worm-like growths from the eyelets in his footwear.

He told me that being only 16 years old he carried the whiskey barrels on a yoke and once dropped them in the wake of a deafening artillery barrage, in the area between the watery living graves known as trenches.

His comrades pointed their rifles at him when he refused to venture out into the killing zone to retrieve the alcohol. Be killed by your tender comrades or sniped at by the enemy in no man’s land. He chose the latter. These were everyday stories from the front line.

He once found a chicken and carried it dead for a week as they were under fire for that entire time. Eventually there was a lull and he cooked the carcass over an open fire with his pals. He told me that maggots and all it was the best meal he ever tasted in his life.

He told me he was a combat infantryman for nearly 1,000 days, and most every day presented a scenario that on the balance of probabilities should have left him dead, blind, limbless or insane.

The most compelling narrative of all for me was a story about an ambulance. He was in an old bombed-out barn and two of his friends were hurt. An ambulance came to take them, and the medic implored him to come with them. Something told him to stay put. As the vehicle speeded away, a German mortar destroyed it along with his comrades – right in front of his eyes.

He carried on, remembering his basic training and put his grief in his “terriers snap box” and got on with surviving. He never told a soul that story until he told me. When he did, he knew that there was not much time left for him.

The old man

When he returned from the Great War he immediately took off to the other side of the world and worked on a sheep farm in Australia, an attempt to flee the noises, visions and smells of carnage and death that had settled in his head by the time he was 20.

By age 21 he had returned to his home. He had seen and done more than I ever will.

The rest of his long life, he died at 87, was spent raising a family, enjoying his grandchildren and self-medicating his PTSD, or shell-shock, with cheap whiskey while holding down a job as an engineer. When he died he told my mother it was “time” and he quietly slipped away in her arms, knowing that he was a true representative of what I now know was the “Greatest Generation.”

I got to know my grandfather as the sometimes grumpy and not particularly engaging old man who lived in our house, who always smelled of stale cigarettes. But most importantly I got to know his life as a young idealistic lad who was prepared to die for a cause he felt was far greater than himself.

As a typical annoying teenager back then, I remember opining that the war was hopeless and a waste of humanity. He looked at me with his gun metal eyes, watery and weary by that time, and he said, “You are wrong son, and I would not change a thing despite what you think.”

I instantly regretted my vacuous remark, and I still do.

A colleague of mine who worked for years with elders once told me: “The elderly do not fear death, indeed they have usually come to terms with this inevitability and are more than ready for their next transition. What they fear is the lack of respect that they receive as they age. They fear that no one knows the person they once were and what they contributed to the world. They fear irrelevance”

As I look back on my relationship with my grandfather, I am so happy that, by accident really, I got to know who he was and what he had been. Looking back after all those years, he died in 1982, I still see him as a wiry, khaki-clad liberator of a beleaguered Europe that needed his, and so many others’, bravery so much in such desperate hours.

I know that is how he and all his comrades wanted to be remembered so many years on.

Over the past decade or so I have spent time passing on his story to my own children, and I think he would be so very pleased that his memory and his deeds have straddled the generations.

“They shall grow not old,
as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor
the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them.

“For the Fallen,”
Laurence Binyon

(Peter Evers is a social worker and lives in Hopkinton.)

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