Reunions

image from University of Bradford website)

I was with this battalion when it was first formed, when I was a private just turned twenty: but I left it, as a casualty, in the summer of 1916 and never saw it again, being afterwards transferred to another regiment. The very secretary who wrote asking me to attend this dinner was unknown to me, having joined the battalion after I had left it. So I did not expect to see many there who had belonged to the old original lot, because I knew only too well that a large number of them, some of them my friends, had been killed. But the thought of meeting again the few I would remember, the men who had shared with me those training camps in 1914 and the first half of 1915 and those trenches in the autumn and winter of 1915 and the spring of 1916, was very exciting. There were bound to be a few there from my old platoon, Number Eight. It was a platoon with a character of its own. Though there were some of us in it young and tender enough, the majority of the Number (129) Eighters were rather older and grimmer than the run of men in the battalion; tough factory hands, some of them of Irish descent, not without previous military service, generally in the old militia. When the battalion was swaggering along, you could not get Eight Platoon to sing: it marched in grim, disapproving silence. But there came a famous occasion when the rest of the battalion, exhausted and blindly limping along, had not a note left in it; gone now were the boasts about returning to Tipperary, the loud enquiries about the Lady Friend; the battalion was whacked and dumb. It was then that a strange sound was heard from the stumbling ranks of B Company, a sound never caught before; not very melodious perhaps nor light-hearted, but miraculous: Number Eight Platoon was singing. Well, that was my old platoon, and I was eagerly looking forward to seeing a few old remaining members of it. But I knew that I should not see the very ones who had been closest to me in friendship, for they had been killed; though there was a moment, I think, when I told myself simply that I was going to see the old platoon, and, forgetting the cruelty of life, innocently hoped they would all be there, the dead as well as the living. After all, there was every excuse that I should dream so wildly for a moment, because all these fellows had vanished from my sight for years and years and in memory I had seen the dead more often than the living. And I think that if, when I climbed the stairs of the tavern, I had seen my friends Irving Ellis and Herbert Waddington and Charlie Burns waiting at the top, grinning at me over their glasses of ale, I would not have been shocked nor even surprised, would not have remembered that they had returned from distant graves. Sometimes I feel like a very old man and find it hard to remember who still walk the earth and who have left it: I have many vivid dreams, and the dead move casually through them: they pass and smile, the children of the sword.

Never have I seen a tavern stairs or a tavern upstairs so crowded, so tremendously alive with roaring masculinity, as I did that night. Most of the faces were strange to me, but here and there, miraculously, was a face that was not only instantly familiar but that at once succeeded in recalling a whole vanished epoch, as if I had spent long years with its owner in some earlier incarnation. We say down, jammed together, in a dining-room that can never have held more people in all its existence. It was not full, it was bursting. We could hardly lift the roast beef and apple tarts to our mouths. Under the coloured paper decorations, we sweated like bulls. The ale went down sizzling. But we were happy, no doubt about that. We roared at each other across the narrow tables. The waiters, squeezing past these lines of feasting warriors, looked terrified and about half life-size. The very bunting steamed. I was between two majors, one of whom was the chairman and (no cool man at (130) any time, except no doubt at a crisis in the front line) now quite red-hot. With him I exchanged reminiscences that seemed almost antediluvian, so far away were those training camps and the figures that roared commands in them. The other major, unlike most of use there, was not a West Riding man at all, but a South Country schoolmaster, known to al his men as ‘Daddy’, and whose character and reputation were such that through him the whole affected and tittering South Country was forgiven everything. In short, he was amazingly and deservedly popular. Rarely have I observed such waves of affectionate esteem rolling towards a man as I did that night. Those rough chaps, brought up in an altogether alien tradition, adored him, and his heart went out to them. I caught a glimpse then – and I am not likely to forget it – of what leadership can mean in men’s lives. I had seen it, of course, in the war itself, but long years of a snarling peace, in which everybody tended to suspect everybody else, had made me forget almost its very existence. And I do not suppose that in all the years that had passed since the war any of those men had found themselves moved by the emotion that compelled them that night to rush forward, at the earliest opportunity, and bring themselves to the notice of ‘good old Daddy’. In other words, they had known this endearing quality of affectionate leadership in war but not in peace.

I had arranged to meet, in a little ante-room, the survivors of my original platoon, and as soon as I decently could I escaped from the press of warriors in the big room, to revisit my own past. There were about eight of us present, and we ordered in some drinks and settled down to remember aloud. I had not seen any of these fellows for seventeen years. I knew them all, of course, and they seemed little older. The difference was that before they had all been soldiers, whereas now their respective status in civilian life set its mark upon them, and now one was a clerk, another a tram-conductor, another a mill-hand and so forth. Nearly all of them remembered more than I did, although I have an exceptionally good memory. Details that had vanished forever from my mind were easily present to theirs. Why? Was it because a defective mechanism in my mind had obliterated as much as it could from my memory; or was it because much more had happened to me since the war than had happened to them and, unlike them, I had not gone back over and over again to those war years? (A third explanation, of course, is that, living in the same district and more often running across one another, they had talked over those years far more than I had.) As figure after figure, comic and tragic, came looming up through the fog of years, as place after place we had been in caught the light again, our talk became more and more eager and louder, until we shouted and laughed in triumph, as one does when Time seems to be suffering a temporary defeat. Frensham, Aldershot, Folkestone, Maidstone, Bully Grenay, Neuve Chapelle, Souchez – how they returned to us! Once again the water was rising round our gum boots. We remembered the fantastic places: that (132)trench which ran in front of a graveyard, where the machine gun bullets used to ricochet off the tombstones; that first sight of Vimy Ridge in the snow, like a mountain of despair. We recalled to one another the strange coincidences and dark premonitions: poor melancholy B who muttered, “I’ll be lying out there tonight,” and was, a dead man that very night; grim Sergeant W. who said to the draft, “This is where you can expect to have your head blown off,” and had his own head shattered by a rifle grenade within three hours. And little Paddy O., who had always seemed such a wisp of a chap, with everything about him drooping, who looked the same as ever, ready to drop at any moment, although he had never dropped and the Central Powers must have spent hundreds of thousands of marks trying to kill him, little Paddy, I say, came close to me, finished his beer, and asked me, stammeringly as ever, if I remembered sending him from the front line for some water for the platoon, on a summer morning in 1916. “Nay,” he stammered, “I wasn’t gone more than t-ten minutes, and when I c-come back, where you’d been, Jack lad, there was n-nobbut a bloody big hole and I n-never set eyes on you again till tonight.” And it was true. I had sent him away on a ten minutes’ errand; immediately afterwards a giant trench mortar had exploded in the very entrance to the little dug-out where I was dividing up the platoon rations; I had been rushed away, and was gone before he returned; and it had taken us more than seventeen years to find one another again.

(J.B. Priestley, English Journey (UCP, 1984 (first published 1934)), 128-132).

A cracking piece of writing about re-unions, obviously – and particularly interesting from Priestley, who had by no means enjoyed his war-service and had established a general-hating persona by the early 1930s. But part also, I think, of a fantasised, idealised version of an English working class, male community. Compare it to Priestley's description of a football crowd, from his 1929 novel The Good Companions:

'It turned you into a member of the community, all brothers together for an hour and a half, for not only had you escaped from the clanking machinery of the lesser life, from work, wages, rent, doles, sick pay, insurance cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses, idle workmen, but you had escaped with most of your maters, and your neighbours, with half the town, and there you were, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swapping judgments like lords of the earth, having punched your way through the turnstile into another and better way of life.'

(quoted in Dave Russell, Football and the English: A Social History of Association Football in England 1853-1995 (Preston, Carnegie, 1997) 122.

 

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