My mother was not quite seventeen when I was born. She and my father, just three years her senior, had married early as he had joined the army. They were still living close to home when I first came into the world, but it was not long before they moved to married quarters at the other end of the country. My father, though, was not around for long as his unit was sent on active duty overseas, so my mother, still just a teenager herself and with a small child to raise, became effectively a single parent with no family close enough to offer the support and advice she needed.
In spite of being very young at the time, I have very clear memories of where we lived, the things we would do together and the places we went. We lived in a small, top-floor flat in an old building on Tunbridge Road; just four rooms and long flights of stairs down into the garden. My mother painted all the characters from Disney’s Snow White and pinned them to my bedroom walls. The bathtub was in an alcove in the kitchen and covered with a wooden lid. Almost every day, we would feed the swans on the Medway. My mother made friends with the old man who hired out rowing boats and, on quiet days, he would let us take a boat out onto the river. It must have been a lonely existence for a young mother who had barely left her own childhood behind.
It did not occur to me until my eldest son was born how difficult she must have found those years. By that time, I was older than my mother had been by almost a decade and, although I was living in France and even further from my family than she had been, I did have a husband who was there and I did not live in constant dread of an officer turning up on the doorstep with the news that he had been killed in action. For my mother, it must have been a lonely and frightening time.
The deaths in that particular arena were counted in hundreds, but both my parents had lived through the last years of WWII where the casualties were counted in millions. Their parents, my grandparents, had lived through the horrors of Great War too, seeing their own fathers march away in uniform and, when the call had come, had served their country, each in their own way. Both my grandfathers had been soldiers and fought overseas, one against the forces of Nazi Germany, the other against the Japanese as part of the ‘Forgotten Army’ in Burma. One grandmother donned a uniform and served on the home front, another took in refugee children.
The bombs fell even upon the northern city where my mother was raised, including one through the roof of their home. Rationing continued for many years after the war had ended and even I can remember the swathes of devastation left behind by bombing and the air-raid shelters crumbling into decay.
The after-effects of those two horrific wars shaped everyone who lived through them. So much residual fear must have played on my mother’s emotions as she lived through my father’s tour of duty. How much more had their mothers and grandmothers felt when their husbands and sons had answered the call to a war that claimed so very many lives?
Generation after generation, century after century, men have suffered and slain one another at the behest of power-hungry leaders or to defend their homes against them. Century after century, women have waited in fear to see whether their menfolk would return, or return whole in body, for few remained unaffected in heart and mind by the horrors they both saw and perpetrated on the battlefield.
Generation after generation, the after-effects of conflict have been passed down to their children, insidiously and unconsciously shaping lives, undermining trust in stability and the permanency of all we might hold dear. It may even be that the very insecurity created by war is one of its causes, a self-perpetuating monster that feeds on all we love.
The official definition of war is a conflict that takes more than a thousand lives. That seems wrong to me, because for every soldier who falls in battle, there will be a family whose lives will never be the same again. Civilian casualties tend to outnumber military losses too.
If, instead, we take war to mean any conflict in which the many die for a power struggle between the few, I wonder if there has ever been a time in human history when this planet has not suffered the effects and after-effects of war?
But for those who serve, it is seldom the politics of power that matters. They serve to protect their homes, their families and their way of life. And, although all have tales to tell, their words focus on the better moments as eyes cloud with unspoken fears and unspeakable horrors. It is in the quiet arena of the home front, as well as on the battlefield that many of the better traits of humanity come to the fore… courage, endurance… compassion, hope and selfless heroism. And these are the men and women who are remembered as poppies are placed at every cenotaph and memorial and worn over so many hearts.