Tomorrow (July 1st) is the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme. Of course those who took part in this most appalling slaughter are now long gone.
Early in my career, when I worked for several years at St Dunstan’s (now Blind Veterans UK) I had the immense privilege of caring for some of the veterans of the First World War, including those who were blinded on the Somme.
Harry was one of them. He was a proud man, proud of his sacrifice and that of his generation. He was always in the front row at Remembrance Sunday services, his medals proudly on show.
When Harry discovered I was a conscientious objector (I left South Africa in 1979 to avoid conscription into the apartheid army) he let it be known that he wanted no support from me, be it reading him the newspaper, serving at his table at dinner time, or even shopping for him. He certainly did not want me to take him out for walks.
This state of affairs continued for a couple of years until one day, quite unexpectedly, he asked that I take him for a walk. Pearson House, the St Dunstan’s care home where Harry lived and where I worked, was in Abbey Road, now part of the health trust that runs the Royal Sussex County Hospital. He asked me to take him to the seafront and to find a seat in the sun. We walked, without talking, and then sat in silence for a few minutes on a bench on the middle promenade.
“You must be wondering why I wanted you to take me out this morning,” he said. I said I was, indeed, surprised. He said that he wanted to tell me something, but asked me to keep it confidential until after his death. He told me that he felt that he had lived a lie, that his generation had been sacrificed senselessly, that his life had been wasted for no good reason. He said he had never admitted this to anyone but he felt that I might understand. He asked me not to respond and to take him back to Pearson House.
Harry died the next day.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about Harry and all those who gave so much, on both sides of the ‘Great War’, the war that was supposed to end all wars.