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Home from the White War

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Katie, Billy’s great-granddaughter, for bringing order to the collection.

Anna, for typing every word, scanning every photograph.

PREFACE

I offer you a collection of picture postcards, just one hundred years on. They are a fascinating record of northern Italy and the Lakes. They are a history book; and they are a love story. The correspondence is only one-way; I never saw any of my grandmother’s answers. It is also incomplete. One or two were probably never delivered, one or two damaged in transit – perhaps not surprisingly. For not quite sixty years, they were a highly treasured memory, then for more than forty they have been in the family attic.

They reveal a very gentle, sensitive, artistic, ever-loving husband and father. He was a singer, pianist and organist, an avid reader, a lover of language. He was handsome, well-educated, sensible enough to keep his head down. The post was the most important part of his day, as for every other soldier. He sent home jewellery and clothing, figs and walnuts, pressed flowers, photographs. He received slippers, an air pillow, books and a pen, magazines – a stream of parcels, including tarts and cake and, of all things in Italy, tomatoes. Squashed.

He wrote many letters too, sent in parcels, or in an official ‘greeney’. These have not been part of the collection, have been a large part of his story, and have been lost. However, we still have a feel for his life. He is ‘lucky’ to be on clerical duty, apparently safe, but often working from six in the morning to near midnight. Often, he does not really emerge from his tent for days on end. He has to put his bed up and down each day. It is not comfortable – but she sends an air pillow. The food is good, but not in summer and not as good as her cooking. The weather is often very hot, but even in summer bitingly cold in the mountain mornings. The water in the fire buckets froze. There were thunderstorms and very strong winds. The snow in January was very heavy but disappeared very quickly. There was even an earthquake in early May, but not in his area. Mosquitoes were bad – but she sent mosquito cream. The health of the army is a major problem, with an epidemic of Spanish Flu. He is confined to bed one day at least. He has to have painful inoculations. His pal Jimmy falls seriously ill and is taken off by motor ambulance – but fortunately reappears before the end. He is always trying to reassure her that all is well and there is no danger. He is the master of understatement. He is a romantic, a dreamer. He thinks of her in the moonlight, in the mountains, in a small boat on the lake. He loves to walk, often with a close friend, often on his own. If possible, he would avoid the crowds, the mess. He loves the flowers and sends them home. He loves the distant views, as far as to Mont Blanc and, in another direction, to Venice. He loves to read and tries to learn Italian. He keeps quiet about his music, but does sing on several occasions. He is a very moral man, disapproving of the house of ‘low repute’, of the young Italian smokers, of Polly’s partner at home, ‘E’ - the rotten scoundrel. Polly was twenty years older than him.

The collection also reveals much between the lines. He does not describe his work, but he deals with leave, with battalion strength. Once he has to inform a soldier of the death of his wife. Rather more often, one assumes it is the other way around. He has to avoid naming places or troop movements. He often does the censoring himself. It is amusing, for example, when Milan is crossed out on a picture of Milan Cathedral. There is indeed information to be found. There are dangerous air-raids in London and the south-east. Buckinghamshire is much safer than Kent, until the latter stages of the war. He had been in the trenches in France and at the third battle at Ypres, at Passchendaele. He had undergone training at Whitley Bay and Seaton Delaval. He had been on leave approximately once a year, his final leave ending on September 18th, 1917. His son, William Arthur, ‘Billy’, was born in May 1915. His daughter, my mother, was born in July 1917. He returned home in early January and my Aunt Peg was born in October 1919. A strange life for newly-weds, very much in love, seeing each other for a matter of weeks in the first four years of marriage.

Officially, he tells us nothing. He would have us think he is on holiday. Only once are his affairs ‘hanging in the balance’. There is ‘uncertainty’ about the office, actually a few days after they had nearly been overrun by the Austrian army. He is not allowed to say much and he never wants to say anything bad. There is a German offensive in April, in France, but soon the news from France is ‘good’. We hear in August again of good news from France, in October, that Bulgaria has surrendered and that Turkey may follow. There are rumours that the central powers cannot continue. He feels sorry for the bedraggled Austrian prisoners. Then we have no cards at all between mid-October and late November, when it is all over. He may have been very busy, or written several celebratory letters – he certainly did not forget her in the euphoria.

The final two months see a curious combination of relaxation and heightened anxiety. There is dinner in a hotel, at which he is going to perform a song. There is a trip out to a celebration match, presumably football. There is a whist drive in the mess. He goes on local leave, on a steamer on Lake Garda. He sings at a carol service with a ‘decent orchestra’. He attends Italian classes. However, the all abiding question is: can he get home for Christmas? He has to have proof of employment back home, but there is a delay. He has not got the official stamp. His former employers do all they can. And he just misses it.

We learn about Betty, too, my grandmother. She has two little babies, and both like to stay awake at night. They are both sick occasionally and there is a Flu epidemic at home in Blighty. She tries to write every day and knows how important it is for him. He dreams that they are sick and gets very anxious, unnecessarily. She is patient and long-suffering but can write gloomy letters of depression. She has friends and family, but she is approaching thirty, has had a good job and her own home and now has had a husband only for a few weeks here and there. She has two small babies. We never see what she writes. We only see perhaps half of what he writes. In the final analysis, his words are far better than mine.

CHAPTER 1: MEET MY GRANDFATHER

I was of the baby boomer generation. I like to think I am the same age as Israel, India, South Africa, West Germany, the National Health Service, North Korea. My father had survived the Second World War, by being classed a “Reserve Occupation” and he survived the illness and disease that swept Europe after 1945. He even survived the terrible winter of 1947, but succumbed, after several heart attacks, in the summer of 1949. My mother, with three little boys, could not face the sympathy, the pity of all those around her in Birmingham. So, she sold everything she had and bought a tumbledown ruin of a “smallholding”, in Kent. We were all too young to carry much evidence of our Brummie roots with us.

Just two years off his official retirement, William and Elizabeth Webb moved down to Kent in 1951 to be near my mother. They looked after her and then she looked after them and my Kentish childhood revolved around the three of them, with my two elder brothers seeming to be occasional visitors on the scene. My mum used to tell me that I was looked after by a faithful sheepdog, called Bill, and Cuthbert the cockerel. So, it was fortunate for me when my grandparents arrived on the scene.

Between them, they carved a garden out of the wilderness, a home out of the gaunt, rather stark house. He loved to mow the various pieces of grass into submission. There was the Nut Patch - I was not really allowed to cut that, almost not to walk on it. My job was the large Bottom Field. So, we lived outside in the garden most of the time. My grandfather used to wear a navy-blue beret – not actually his uniform, but it reminded him of his young days. I still have that. The other evidence of another lifetime was a carefully maintained.22 rifle. None of us boys showed much aptitude, as I remember, but he liked to take us to one very safe spot in the country, to try out on his “range”. He had all the official licences and admitted that at some point he had been a sniper, though presumably not with a.22 rifle. I think that period dated back to France and Belgium, but he was never keen to talk about that.

All his memories, now filtered through mine, are of Italy. He would throw bits of language at us – formaggio, pane, vino – grazie tanto – it was easy to see what he had needed to learn. When I later answered him back, he became very animated, gesticulating magnificently, like a true Italian. Now, I wonder why I never arranged to take him back to Lago di Garda. Perhaps he never wanted to, probably my grandmother would never have let him out of her sight to go there again and would have hated to see it for herself. I suppose when I was 20 he was already 80 and too old to go. But, his love of Italy never left him and, having received it from him at a very early age, I have never lost mine either.

Billy senior

Billy junior with Evelyn, my mum

CHAPTER 2: BEFORE 1914

I have never tried to be systematic in piecing together the lives of my grandparents, preferring my hazy family anecdotes. The first postcard is sent from Gibraltar to Miss Poffley, living in a smart part of London. She worked in the civil service and, at the age of twenty, must have looked stunning. She preserved her Edwardian, very strait-laced attitudes for all of her life, while he was very much more flexible and forgiving. I still have a beautiful carriage clock, presented to her when she left to get married. Her family had military connections and for that reason their wedding was arranged for the hilltop church next to Dover Castle. Her father was Commander of Armaments at the castle. They had been based at Gibraltar at some time and there was a murky family story about her riding off into the North African sunset, on a camel! Since this did not fit with the strait-laced image, it was not much discussed.

She loved history and was amazingly good at knowing the dates of English monarchy.

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