Sunday, 9 November 2014

A First World War Tale

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin…

It's the late 70s and a Heroine of the Resistance died. She went underground in 1940 and fought against the German occupation of her country. She was forced underground because her name was in Hitler's little black book, someone to be arrested on sight, just as Virginia and Leonard Woolf's names were in the British version if Germany ever invaded. That book was in the exhibition about Virginia Woolf at the National Portrait Gallery earlier this year.

The death of a great heroine was a noteworthy thing in the late 70s and her passing was noted in national newspapers. The telling of her life explained how she came to be in the black book.

She grew up on a farm in northern France at the start of the last century and later, as war came nearer, the farm ended up ruined and in no-man's land between the trenches. People ran for their lives but she hid in the ruined barn when the bombardment started. At some point, a wounded British soldier crawled into the barn for shelter and passed out from his wounds. A German soldier came into the barn to shoot the British tommy but for some reason she attacked the German soldier and fought him off. At the end of the battle she somehow helped the British tommy get back to the British lines, delirious from the pain and unable to express any thanks. She left him at a field hospital and vanished.

The German soldier was Hitler who clearly had a long memory and, when he came to power he had the resources to find that French farm girl and add her name to his list. Fast-forward to 1940 and the girl, now a woman, vanished into the underground and once again fought German invaders. She somehow survived five long years of war and was rightly celebrated and honoured when her country was free again.

Fast forward another 30 odd years to articles about her exploits in the newspapers to commemorate her passing. The articles caught the attention of researchers working for an old soldiers charity who decided to try to track down any British soldiers that might have fought alongside her. So they scoured old army records for any sign of events that might match her exploits. They managed to find the name of the British tommy from that ruined farmhouse and found out that he survived the war and was still alive, living in an old soldier's home on the edge of the town of Crieff in Scotland.

They got in touch with him to tell him the story of the woman who saved his life. He knew nothing about it, being either delirious or unconscious the whole time and had no idea how he got to the field hospital he woke up in without one of his arms. The old man was now in his 80s and had an important part of his lost past pieced together. There were articles about the British soldier saved from being killed by Hitler and the old man became a minor celebrity in old soldiers circles for a short time. He even went to a royal garden party at Buckingham Palace. He was invited back a couple of years later but declined. Ten years later the old soldier passed away.

The old soldier was my grandfather.

This Remembrance Sunday I will remember those who survived the war, maimed and hurt in ways I can't image. I will remember that old soldier and raise a glass to my Granda.

No comments: