Richard van Emden on The Great War - Why We Should Remember

Posted on Thursday 15th May 2014


Many people have asked me over the years how I became interested in the Great War. In 1984 I read Robert Graves’ memoir ‘Goodbye to All That’ and I was instantly hooked. His work made me acutely aware of my ignorance of the subject and so rather than read about it in dusty history books I decided I wanted to meet the men who had been there. I gave myself the ambitious target of meeting 250 before they all faded away.
After a brief visit to the Chelsea Pensioners, where I wandered around eyeing soldiers’ medal ribbons for evidence of Great War Service, my first real opportunity to meet veterans was in 1986 and the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. I crossed on a ferry and recall being in awe of the dozen or so veterans who tottered and teetered around the deck.
The 1980s saw a re-awakening of interest in the Great War as people began to appreciate that the veterans were nearing the end of their lives. For too long, the Great War was rather forgotten. Many of you will be aware of the annual ceremony at the Lochnagar Crater on the Somme, a crater blown on 1 July 1916. In 1986 there were 300 people at the ceremony there; in 1991, perhaps 600, and the number has held steady ever since. In 1976 there had been just one man there, a priest.
The veterans who attended those services until the late 1990s provided a human bridge to a time that so many felt was almost ancient history.


The first veteran I met was Norman Ralph Skelton, a former private in the Royal Engineers. He had served on the Somme aged 17 and had been deafened by a shell explosion. He was sitting in a deck chair by the side of the Lochnagar Crater and we chatted about his service. I recall visiting him a month or two later in New Malden, where he lived, to hear more about his service and the death and carnage he saw, and I was rather surprised when he broke down in tears, not at the sights he had seen, but at the release he felt at being invalided home. It gave me some idea of the pressure and fear under which these men had constantly lived.
I met 25 veterans that week on the Somme and then spent the next twenty years in a hunt of ever decreasing circles as veterans died off. To begin with, while I was at University, I would simply knock on the doors of residential homes and ask if they had a veteran. The answer was usually ‘no’ but when I asked if they had a man in his nineties the answer changed to ‘yes’. Friends too would tell me of surviving grandfathers, one of a veteran he’d sat next to on a bus, and I would dutifully track them down. Armed with a camera, an autograph book and a cassette tape recorder I would capture as many details as I could, trying to adapt and hone my interviewing skills as I went. These interviews were for no other purpose than that I wanted to do it; I had no thought that this obsession would turn into a career.
And that is why I am so grateful to Pen and Sword Books. When I became involved with a BBC programme to film some of the last veterans, Pen and Sword published my accompanying book and that sold well. A subsequent book, based on my interviews, Britain’s Last Tommies, sold even better. What these books showed me, and so many people, was that there was a great appetite to hear from these last men, men who soon become national treasures.


And of course that brings me to Harry Patch. As the number of new veterans declined to a few hundred, I had to find new ways to find them. I advertised in newspapers, I contacted the head offices of nursing homes and then I took a subscription to a little known magazine called the Caring Times. This was an industry magazine about zimmer frames and stenna lifts, but at the back was a small panel congratulating men and women on reaching their century. Most, of course were women, but now and again there was a man’s name: Harry Patch of Fletcher House, Wells, was one. Harry was a veteran who had never spoken about the war and it showed. He had bottled up his memories for 80 years. Harry agreed to see me, and a great friendship developed that lasted a decade. In 2007 Harry and I wrote his story, The Last Fighting Tommy.
Naturally it is impossible not to have favourites. Many veterans I met just once, some were not really as sharp as they once were. And then there were those who were wonderful: Harry Patch, Ben Clouting, Andrew Bowie, Vic Cole and Stan Clayton are the ones I always recall with the greatest fondness.
People have asked why I bothered to speak to these men. They were all too old, too infirm, too liable to false memories. These men should have been interviewed 40 years earlier. Well, of course I wasn’t there to do it 40 years earlier, but what I did get was a chance to appreciate that history is more tangible that we realize, that these men at the end of their lives could reflect on the war without rancour or any desire to apportion blame, but tell it to you as it was.
I visit the battlefields every year to remember these men and to walk the ground that they once walked. My wife sometimes comes with me, not because she is particularly interested in the War, she isn’t, beyond a casual curiosity. But she in her own busy, city-pressured world can stand back and see that our troubles and problems are as nothing compared to what these men and women had to endure. And if the veterans have left us anything, beyond a valuable warning from history and the realisation of how much we owe to those who served the country on our behalf, then it is to see our own lives in proper proportion, and for that I am eternally grateful.

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Visit Richard's website for more information on his full list of Great War books in print: www.richardvanemden.com.

Further Reading


Britain's Last Tommies
(Hardback)
ISBN: 9781844153152

by Richard Van Emden
Only £19.99

On the centenary of the Great War, there are now no longer any veterans alive of the six million men who served on the Western Front. Although this means that the Great War as a living history is to all intents and purposes over, the twenty years Richard van Emden spent interviewing and carefully recording the memories of over 270 veterans, makes this extraordinary collection of stories even more poignant.

As well as stories told by the veterans themselves, Richard has also included his own memories…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Further Reading


Last Man Standing
(Paperback - 208 pages)
ISBN: 9781848848658

by Richard Van Emden
Only £12.99

It hardly seems credible today that a nineteenyear- old boy, just commissioned into the Seaforth Highlanders, could lead a platoon of men into the carnage of the Battle of the Somme. Or that, as the machine gun bullets whistled past and shells exploded, he could maintain his own morale to lead a platoon, keeping its discipline and cohesion, in spite of desperate losses. Norman Collins, the author of this superb memoir, was this remarkable man.

Using Norman's own words, Last Man Standing follows him from his childhood…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Further Reading


Teenage Tommy
(Hardback - 192 pages)
ISBN: 9781783032877

by Richard Van Emden
Only £19.99

Benjamin Clouting was just sixteen years old when he embarked with the British Expeditionary Force for France in August 1914. The youngest man in the 4th Dragoon Guards, he took part in the BEF's celebrated first action at Casteau on August 22nd, and, two days later, had his horse shot from under him during the famous cavalry charge of the 4th Dragoon Guards and the 9th Lancers at Audregnies. Ben served on the Western front during every major engagement of the war except Loos, was wounded twice, and in 1919…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Further Reading


Famous
(Paperback - 352 pages)
ISBN: 9781848841970

by Richard Van Emden
Only £5.00 RRP £10.99

Famous tells the Great War stories of twenty of Britain's most respected, best known and even notorious celebrities. They include politicians, actors, writers, an explorer, a sculptor and even a murderer. The generation that grew up in the late 19th Century enlisted enthusiastically in the defence of the country. Many would become household names such as Basil Rathbone, the definitive Sherlock Holmes, AA Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh, and Arnold Ridley who found fame and public affection as the dour Scotsman Fraser, and the gentle and genial Godfrey, in…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...


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