My Father’s War

Gillian Darley

Earlier this year I went to Picardy, heading for a tiny, skewed, rectangle I’d drawn on a map of northern France. Here, north of Bray-sur-Somme, south of Albert, in the countryside around Méaulte, Suzanne, Carnoy, Fricourt and Mametz, was where my father lived from August 1915 to March 1917. It isn’t on the Poppy Trail or the official Circuit of Remembrance. I wanted to scan horizons, plot distances, think back. Each nondescript name denotes a place destroyed, now a blank canvas of gigantic undifferentiated fields, with a slight queasy swell, and occasional woods, like ink splats on blotting paper. On that dank April morning there were only two distant figures in the entire landscape, masked by mist, and carrying shotguns.

My father died suddenly when I was twenty. He was in his early seventies, wrung out by a military career beginning on the Somme and ending after Dunkirk. Seen off-guard, a slight man with a surprisingly loud voice, he often looked drawn, tense. But it was too soon for me to ask questions, too late for him to answer them.

In the late 1960s, I was a student in London and neither at an age nor in the mood for retrospection. The 1914-18 war went unmentioned at home. In April 1918 my father was wounded in the leg and invalided home for several months. Yet he neither limped nor complained of pain. It was the least of his injuries. If I’d asked him about the screams I sometimes heard at night or his odd speech tic I’m sure he’d have been, at best, evasive.

There were other, larger questions I might have put to him, and which he might have been even less willing to answer. He would probably have been bemused to be asked to justify what he and his fellow schoolboys were fighting for. Why didn’t the waste of life in pursuit of blurred objectives and inchoate arguments raise its own urgent questions? But they were an immature generation in the case of the officer class, sheltered believers in empire, deference and loyalty. Second Lieutenant Robert Darley, gazetted in the Royal Regiment of Artillery on 10 February 1915, followed in his father’s footsteps. Born in 1859, George saw action in the Boer War.

As a teenager I’d occasionally hazarded what the daily familiarity with death and fearful injury might do to the sensibilities of a shy boy just out of school, but even then I sensed that my father’s quiet life in the Suffolk countryside was serving as belated, self-administered therapy. In my childhood we did not travel far (my father had had quite enough of that). One year, going west, we stopped at Winchester College, his school. He’d never seen the War Cloister, built in 1924. He stood apart, slowly reading down the names listed, five hundred boys and men, many from his own regiment. It was the only time I saw my father in tears.

On the 90th anniversary of the Armistice, in 2008, I located a written account to help me build up the physical reality of my father’s war. Until then I’d depended on the History of ‘A’ Battery, 84th Army Brigade, RFA 1914-18 by Major D.F. Grant MC (1922). Unusually, the major had commanded the battery throughout, making him paterfamilias to his small group, at most three hundred men, among them my father. Lieut. R. Darley turns up in his pages quite a bit. Once, ingloriously, he unloads munitions over a hedge straight into a deep pond, but otherwise he is mentioned for his courage. Grant’s little book was written to help survivors deal with the darkness that had fallen over their lives and he aimed to be positive, at least on an individual level. He was fiercely critical of organisational failures and alterations affecting the Royal Field Artillery.

At the height of what Grant calls the ‘great offensive’ on the Somme, my father, now a forward observing officer, resupplied the infantry with bombs, ‘making his way’ to headquarters and returning with ammunition, no simple journey. A little over a year later, at Passchendaele, probably the worst of all the engagements for the battery, he showed ‘marvellous energy and dogged persistence’, dragging guns through the mud under sustained gas attack, protected only by pouring rain. During the fierce German fightback in April 1918, he and a signaller defied heavy shelling and thick gas to mend crucial lines of communication to headquarters. His colleague was hit and died in his arms, but my father struggled back, though badly wounded, and re-established contact. He was given the Military Cross.

I remembered something else, a postcard sent in August 1915 by my father’s uncle, Brigadier-General Gordon Geddes RFA, to his brother-in-law, telling him that Bob had arrived safely. I discovered, online, that Geddes kept a war ‘diary’, which was (with some 150 others) housed at the Royal Artillery archives in Woolwich. My great-uncle was in France from August 1914 until April 1919. The ‘diaries’ are transcribed letters, highly descriptive (gunners were trained to be exceptionally observant) and witty, but also mundane and reassuring. He was keeping an eye on my father and offering comforting half-truths. I suspect that, with the passing months, he was varnishing the picture. The contrast between his account of my father, always ‘cheerful’, and his quarters, always ‘homely’ (even if leaking and subterranean), and the agonising scenes that he frequently encountered elsewhere is marked.

He describes a bucolic scene in August 1915. Geddes and his men are helping the women and old men to bring in the harvest – the young men had all left for the Front. His French is improving and he makes friends with a countess, now her own estate manager, dressed in a blue serge dress and puttees. Heilly, with its unmade roads, is appealingly remote, though the local girls fancy themselves ‘flappers’. He sent home prewar postcards of such villages. Heilly is still recognisable, as it remained well behind the lines. But all that’s left of the big house are a couple of gate piers and substantial remnants of masonry, masked by tangled vegetation. The site is sealed off with aggressive makeshift fencing, the barbed wire and old ironwork bearing the unambiguous message: enter ‘sous peine de poursuites’. When Geddes was there, terracotta bloodhounds stood on the front steps and its high windows looked down on the water meadows where British soldiers bathed in the river Ancre wearing only their helmets, both shocking and amusing the locals.

From Heilly, Geddes reported that on 3 August 1915 he’d taken responsibility for A/84. Recently promoted, he had charge of 124 guns (my father’s battery had only six), thousands of men and 4500 horses. ‘I want the Germans to keep quiet for a bit, till our new people have settled.’ He hurried to pay his first visit to my father’s bivouac and reported home: ‘Bob’s battery are in a lovely dugout & he will learn his job quietly & safely.’

On his second visit, in a staff car powering along at 60 mph, Geddes finds his 18-year-old nephew in charge, ‘stiff as a poker’, calling the men to attention. His quarters were seven feet underground, with five bunks ‘like the cabin of a ship & quite dark. It poured with rain & the water spouted in, but not on his bed!’ They had camouflaged the guns with leaves and brushwood. The enemy was astonishingly close: ‘We can see them walking about quite plainly.’ Once, when the two sides were in a steep-sided part of the Somme valley, ‘I looked into their trenches and villages. They can see into ours.’ The Germans, too, were strolling around, motoring, cycling and taking in the harvest while the conflict was on hold.

In the lull, my father must have shared his uncle’s pleasure in the late summer agricultural landscape, hazy blue with chicory, cornflowers and chalk butterflies, and overhead a procession of hawks, kestrels and even a hen harrier. Probably, like his uncle, he rode out in the early evenings – my father was much more confident on horseback than on his feet. Sometimes Geddes takes Bob out for the day, driving on what he calls his ‘village doctor’s’ rounds. Having heard that Germany is fighting for her life in the east, Geddes believes that ‘the second year of the Great War must finish her.’ After his experiences on the Marne the previous year, the end couldn’t come soon enough.

But by October the optimism has seeped away. Geddes observes that A/84 is under continuous attack though the depth of their dugouts makes them shell-proof. Some of their gun casements are colossal: ‘Regular Elephant Houses!’ The general takes Bob to lunch for his 19th birthday in mid-November, noting that ‘he thinks I live in great luxury – so I do comparatively – but I have done my share of dugouts.’ Already the mud, deep enough to swallow a gumboot without trace, had made the trenches unusable.

On Boxing Day 1915 Geddes visits A/84 with his own superior officer. Conditions, if possible, had worsened. The senior general is unsuitably dressed so my father lends him waders. The man in my father’s boots is Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Morland, who would be overall commander of forces at the Battle of the Somme. Now the two generals ‘flopped & scrambled along’ in a pea soup of mud, and as shelling starts my father suggests that they crawl to the observation post, ‘a little cell with a slit in it overlooking Fricourt’. They find themselves looking straight down onto a German-occupied village, their telescopic view showing ‘every twig & blade of grass & house’.

The Battle of the Somme engages their full gamut of weaponry, from 250 pounders to field guns. Then comes the German response: ‘Heavy shell flew overhead & burst in the batteries or in the trench we had come along … we left before the sermon.’ The generals retire to eat their sandwiches ‘10 feet under the ground, where the boy lived. He turned on his gramophone. There was a table & a stool & a bookshelf. He had lived there for 6 weeks.’ Music and homely things offer, he infers (for the benefit of those at home), some protection from the horror at ground level. On the last day of the year the Germans use tear gas and snatch their prisoners out of the trenches.

As the fabric of the area is systematically destroyed, shelter, for horses as much as for men, becomes a priority. In February 1916, passing through Albert in the snow, Geddes spots an officer loading bricks from ruined houses onto wagons. The ‘brickmaster’ is my father. Soon after, Geddes receives new orders and has to leave the area.

Occasionally Geddes hears of A/84, still between Méaulte and Bray; in September 1916 he returns from leave to learn they’ve helped capture Thiepval. In mid-October the two men meet again; now Bob is ‘near Albert with his horse lines. He lives in a “chattoo” built of ammunition boxes.’ He serves a ‘tip top’ lunch – ‘Tinned asparagus, beefsteak & onions & cheese’ – after which they drive to Bray on the Peronne road, returning to Albert via Fricourt and Mametz, where ‘the old Tanks have done wonders.’

But the tone of bravado is for domestic consumption, particularly for my grandparents’ sake. When he reports home on his visit to nearby Bazentin, he describes a ‘battlefield … such as, I suppose, was never seen in the world’s history’. They edge along the rims of shell-holes ‘like rats’.

Imagine a long ridge running east & west – stricken sticks represent woods, brown red mud everywhere & huge shell craters. Poor dead horses lay in some & in the trenches into which they had fallen … German boots & trousers with bones in them & human remains all over the place – a horrid smell pervaded the air – a gale blowing & rain coming down in torrents.

Shells scream overhead. Geddes was driving for six hours, on foot for three. The following day he takes to his bed. ‘Put it down to yesterday … The sights alone were enough to make even a strong man sick.’

When Geddes drops in to mark his nephew’s 20th birthday he can’t find him. Fog compounds the grim conditions but he perseveres and on his third try, ten days later, locates him with the horse lines ‘looking exceedingly well & cheerful’. The persistent search suggests how worried Geddes had been; his brother had been killed at Ypres in 1915.

The weeks and months dragged on. Geddes describes sinister yellow stains on the snow, the mark of gas attacks. In January 1917 he is back with A/84. A tree marked on the map had gone, and they’d fired on their own side. Luckily the casualties were slight. Major Grant was profoundly upset but relieved that in Geddes his battery had such a ‘kind-hearted and human friend’.

By then A/84 had been in the same area for 19 months. In March 1917, reorganised yet again, they head for Vimy Ridge (just north of Arras) and then take the long march towards Ypres, to embark on what Grant called ‘the sad and terrible Passchendaele fight’. Geddes can no longer keep an eye on his nephew. My father sustains a ‘slight head injury’ followed, some months later, by the serious leg wound. Now the story shrinks back to what little I knew from Grant’s book and the gazettes.

Almost a hundred years later, under a pall of drizzle, I tried to picture the scene in front of me shading into Geddes’s description of Bazentin. Now super-scaled agribusiness rolls numbly over trenches, gun emplacements, observation posts and the rest but just occasionally, in hot summers, their vestigial presences emerge like stretch-marks on distended skin.

In summer 1918 Geddes is back at Heilly. The chateau is ruined and the redoubtable ‘little countess’ has gone (he finds her and she is soon supplying cows again). Around Albert all has been destroyed, ‘devastation pure & simple. Dead trees & barren waste. So much for scenery.’ My father’s 22nd birthday was the day after the Armistice. Geddes wanted to have the cows shod ‘so they could march down Unter den Linden wagging their tails’.

In March 1919, Geddes encountered Bob serving with the British army of occupation near Cologne. It was probably their last meeting. The brigadier-general was heading home, with his Légion d’Honneur and a German album of ‘the most interesting photographs I have seen during the war’. By August 1919 he was dead, doubtless a victim of Spanish flu. Meanwhile my father, a career soldier, based in Colchester and Catterick, was posted to Turkey, then India, before embarking to France for his second world war.

Eventually, retired and married, he put the album and Grant’s history into a drawer. In his garden all was calm. Old roses were trained beside narrow paths. Venerable apple trees were espaliered into disciplined horizontals while softened by age and lichen. On the Somme no trees had survived; here elderly trees were propped and treasured; an arthritic medlar made a leafy bell-shaped tent, the angled trunk of an up-ended fruit tree a comfortable seat for long summers of teenage reading.