This post has taken me a week to finish. I wanted to get it right. I still don’t think I have done it the justice I feel it deserves. However, having already missed ANZAC Day, I can’t let the week go by without hitting publish.
Here is – in part – my great-grandfather’s somewhat faltering foray into war….
Our ELB (his initials and the affectionate moniker the family has always had for Edward Leslie) was my great-grandfather – my mother’s father’s father – and is someone I dearly would have loved to meet. The more I learn of him, the more I appreciate him. Alas, he died in 1970, five years before I drew my first breath.
ELB was a Baptist minister. He went to war in a peaceful support role and served with the YMCA in a hut at Guillemont in France during World War I…. for three whole weeks! I think it was actually by some grand Universal Design that he contracted pneumonia and was sent to convalesce at a hospital a safe distance from the shelling – he was never allowed to return to the war effort after that. Men who had stood beside him serving tea and cigarettes to soldiers returning from the trenches on their way back to their camps were injured by gunfire after ELB had left. So the position wasn’t without its danger, there were times they had to retreat to bunkers… And my great-grandfather avoided all of that. I have to say, I am glad (for him and for my family). I only wish the millions of others were as lucky.
ELB moved from England to settle in Australia in the 1920′s with his wife and their four children (their eldest was my grandfather), first in W.A., then in S.A. where in his final seven years he lived on his only daughter’s remote sheep station in the north of the state and mostly spent his days writing. Writing, writing, writing. I dig the old guy!
He even helped out, in between writing sermons that would never be read out to a congretation. As evidenced here…:
I mean, really. How awesome is that photo? (or is it just me?) I can’t say I’ve ever taken a break from writing to go and hand feed some sheep.
ELB was a born writer – he wasn’t the first (or the last) in our family! There are scores of us, it seems, who are compelled to write, my mother included (and my father too, so I got a double dose of the need…). Although he never had anything published in book form, as his predecessors did before him, ELB was a prolific sermon writer and used to pack the pews in his heyday. He challenged people/his congregation with forward thinking, pushing the boundaries of the written gospel, encouraging them with his prose to think and move beyond being mere followers.
I have the deeply good fortune to hold some of his letters in his own handwriting from the time when he went across to France to serve in a hut just back from the Front. His job was to serve tea and lend an ear and a kind word to the soldiers as they came back from fighting. What a job! What a guy. I love that this was his role in WWI. In some respects, I’m even more proud of that than if he was actually in the battle itself.
It’s only a shame – and a bit laughable – that it lasted less than a month because he went and got sick… He really was wanting to be in it for the long haul, but had strict medical orders to not return.
“It is the men coming out of the trenches who need us most – not those going in. By six o’clock there is a long queue of men waiting for admission and from that time until the small hours of the morning we are hard at it. About ten o’clock the boys from the front line begin to arrive and there the real work begins. Poor lads! So tired and jaded and hungry and cold. Do you think they care because we have not enough mugs to go round or because there is no time to wash those we have? We just serve out tea as hard as we can go and give the cheering word whenever possible. How the tea heartens them!”
“He saw the whole ghastly business and shuddered at the memory. I could write much about it but I just want to say that after what he told me I have no doubt left that Frank was killed that day and that his death was instantaneous or nearly so. We can hope for nothing better. The more I see and hear the more do I hate and loathe the very idea of war. God grant we may never see another after this and that all the horror and beastly savagery of it all may be a warning to men for generations to come. There is much to depress out here and much to encourage. God bless you my darling! I wish I could be with you now. Are you better? And how is Daddy’s dear little man? Love to Ma and the others. Your loving husband, Leslie.”
From his letters, I get my own sense of him – family remembrances aside, I find it helpful to get to know these ancestors in my own way. As it is with ELB, he gets to tell a story in his own words, without the harsh filters of others’ perspectives or grievances over the decades to factor in to my feel of him. It’s just me and his words, in his handwriting.
ELB was in hospital for three months all told. That’s why he had all the time in the world to sketch the view from his beside.
I have gazed up close at these pen strokes for quite some time. It’s such an intimate, personal way to really get to know the hand of a man who shares your blood. I find it quite cathartic in a way, though in some respects it makes the yearning to have met him even stronger.
ELB’s letters to his wife, Alice, are amusing, touching, sensitive and carry that undertone of pomp that he was possibly unfairly mostly branded with. It’s interesting to me now, recalling all the snippets of anecdotes I’ve heard/had handed down to me from older generations who knew him, and how negative some of these were – but do they truly describe a person who is long dead and gone?
I don’t think so.
At best, these recollections are worn-out old tapes of other relatives who have handed down the exchanges and who might well have had cause to take slight at things he did or said to them. But surely, one has to step back and consider that the slighted relative’s perspective and the way they view the world taints any version of events in their favour. And there begins the family lore. The furphy. It happens so easily and it’s rife through all families.
But I don’t know. I’ve begun to get a really strong urge to learn about each of my closest elders (the grandparents that go back 2-3 generations) in my own way. I want my own connection with them, not that of the grabs of remarks I can remember being told growing up.
I didn’t meet ELB. But I sure feel like I really know him more and more.
Do you have a desire to know any of your ancestors without the family conditioning/stories overlaid on their memory?