My grandfather died on June 22, 1977, a decade before the Enniskillen bombing. Had he been alive on that day, he would have been wearing his pressed suit, with medals and poppy attached to the lapels, not unlike those pensioners gathered respectfully at the Cenotaph where at 10:43am, with chilling choreography, an IRA bomb exploded, killing eleven and wounding 68. I cannot think of the First World War without also thinking of Enniskillen, so as we prepare to commemorate the one hundred year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme – in which my grandfather fought – I am also remembering those old men gathered in remembrance at the Cenotaph in County Fermanagh.
My Granda never forgot the wars and the men who fought beside him. Never. He made sure I remembered too. Because of him, I have always known that “the war to end all wars” ended in 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. He told me so many times on our walks down the Moss Road. At just 25, he had been part of that “template of civic cooperation.” As Private James McFadden, No. 15823, he enlisted as a volunteer soldier with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Following his training at Finner Camp in County Donegal, he was promptly shipped off to France, where he fought, scared yet brave, in the Battle of the Somme and at Passchendaele. For untold miles, he crept through the muck, weary, thirsty, lost, and far from home. One of too few who survived the battle at Passchendaele, Granda carried to safety another young soldier, Sammy Campbell, who hailed from The Upperlands, a village outside Maghera. Granda told my mother the story many times – lest she would forget. Too, he told of the raging hunger that drove him to steal chickens from a French farm, of the thirst and weariness that almost broke him.
My grandfather did not belong in the muck. He belonged on the banks of the Moyola River, fishing, or cutting turf at The Moss. It saddens me to picture him far away from the bluebells and foxgloves that once lined winding lanes to houses along the Broagh road.
By the time I was in my teens, doing O-level English and learning by heart much of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est,” I had already committed to memory my grandfather’s own story of the “war and the pity of war,” and how it had been fought on faraway fields, in particular, of a dark evening that found him and his brothers in arms, afraid, parched with thirst, their billy cans empty. Crawling on their bellies through a field somewhere in France, I imagine they felt something close to euphoria when they came upon the little stream, followed by a horror that would haunt my grandfather into old age. I shudder to think of him on his knees by the edge of the stream, reaching into it and cupping the water in his hands, bringing it up to his face, and then noticing its red tinge because flowing in the foreign water was also the blood of a young German soldier who had died close by. Phlegmatic, my grandfather recounted those details in a voice I can still hear. I can see him. I can see his beautiful eyes, twinkling the same blue as mine, his trademark checked shirt, and the tweed cap he twirled in the fingers of his left hand. As he tells the story, he pauses to drink tea.
Granda liked his tea with only a drop of milk – just enough to color it – and two spoonfuls of sugar. Increasing the odds that it would be strong, his was always the last cup poured from the pot. Often with two Rich Tea biscuits impossibly balanced upon a saucer, the delicate china cup somehow belonged in his elegant hand. To cool his tea, and to my great amusement, Granda sometimes poured it into the saucer from which he subsequently drank with a little slurp. He wore cable-pattern vests my aunt had knit for him pulled over his signature checked shirts – his favorite was red and white. My mother is convinced those checked shirts were his way of remembering what he wore, how we was, as a young immigrant in America. The timing seems right, given the rise to popularity of Pendleton plaid shirts before World War II. My mother also tells me that the plain blue shirt he wore to my grandmother’s funeral seemed as out-of-place as he must have felt in a world without her.
Before his world changed, Granda and I spent part of so many Sundays on long walks. At the top of the lane, we always stopped and looked right, looked left, looked right again, before turning left towards the Moss Road, along which gypsies were occasionally encamped. Sometimes, as a treat for me, he carried barley sugar sweets deep in his pockets. He taught me to look out for nettles and the big broad docken leaves that were supposed to soothe their sting.
As a girl, my mother had been sent by my grandmother, down this same road, to deliver sandwiches and flasks of tea to her father and the other turf cutters. I often wonder what they would have made of the young Seamus Heaney who lived just down the road and often sped by on his bicycle, sandy hair blowing in the wind. Could they ever have imagined the smallness of their world enlarged for global audiences through “Digging” and other poems that pulled taut the stuff of life and those who lived it within and beyond the banks of the Moyola River:
“My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf.”
And so on this day when we commemorate one hundred years since the first day of Battle of the Somme, in which nearly 60,000 British soldiers were killed, I am remembering my grandfather, all that he fought for – what was gained and what was lost.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.