Monday, July 30, 2012
25 years old......
The only technical mountaineering I ever did was to climb Pic Coolidge (above) in France as a 25-year-old. The route is graded "Easy". Not many climbs are thus kindly graded and one feels they're there just to make us scaredy-cats think they are mountaineers. And, yep, I was easily scared. At one point, there was a gap to step across with a 1500 foot drop if you for some reason failed to put one foot in front of the other. Before crossing, I waited for a couple of minutes, staring, reflecting and wanting to be elsewhere. The patient climber behind me eventually had to prod, "Well, go on then!" So I did, but realized I was the proud owner of, as they say, an acute sense of self preservation.
Contrast this with my grandfathers, both of them, when they were 25.
97 years ago today, on July 30th 1915, the 14th Infantry Division of Kitchener's Army, in which 25-year-old Oliver Cecil 'Charlie' Smith was a Corporal, was defending Hooge near Ypres. Suddenly, at 3.15 a.m., jets of flame shot across from the German trenches - the first time that "liquid fire" flamethrowers had been used on the Western Front. Immediately a deluge of fire of all kinds fell on the terrified men, and on that day the Division lost nearly 2,500 men. Charlie spent 3 interminable years fighting at Ypres and the Somme during that senseless war.
But was my other Grandfather, Austen Ashley, any less brave? He was one of the only 6000 UK political Conscientious Objectors during that same Great War. Marched with others through the streets of Norwich so that the jeering crowds could pelt them with rotten apples and cabbages and throw the white feathers of cowardice at them, he was sent to Dartmoor Prison for solitary confinement and bread rations. In the Second World War, when the Baedeker raids, targeting picturesque cities, hit Norwich, while others were cowering in shelters he was working in the flames as an Air Raid Warden.
Both grandfathers were subsequently mostly unemployed. Charlie, for example, never had a car, a phone or a bank account. His daughter, a cowman's wife, first polished her nails in a hospice shortly before she died in the 1990s - blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.
Yes, contrast my grandfathers with their prosperous, overfed grandson living 52 years of peace and exciting opportunity! No reason for guilt, but we must remember our good fortune sometimes, must we not?
Here's a poem by Charlie, written in the trenches, which I find striking for a working-class man who left school at 12:
God made the Man, gave him the gift of life
Drawn from some unknown, strange, mysterious source.
Lent him his youthful vigour, grace and force,
And bid him run with time an even course,
Discounting enmity and strife.
One swift-sent bullet out of the unseen,
Seeking its billet, and the race was run,
The light extinguished and the darkness won.
The future killed, the day's work scarce begun
And death's dropped veil where life had begun.
Man made the watch a triumph of his skill,
A marvel wrought of craft and subtlety,
Decreed that it would work in mystery
Dogging the steps of time victoriously,
And to the end this task fulfill.
When darkness hid the ills that war had bred,
Its steadfast beat, tranquil as at the start,
Recorded time, playing its destined part
Close to the nerveless arm and silent heart
Still quick and faithful mid the dead.