Monday, November 11, 2013

My Grandfather's War

When I was born, the end of the First World War was much closer in time than the end of the Second World War is to us, now - a strange, sobering thought. And when I was growing up, there were still plenty of WW1 veterans alive. One of them was my grandfather, Albert Charles Austin. He joined the Sussex Yeomanry, and as part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force fought in Palestine.  Here he is, with some of his comrades (the purple x is my mother's):

He fought in the Second or Third Battle of Gaza; afterwards he took a photograph of a disabled Mark 1 tank:

At one point he photographed Bedouin arms - flintlock rifles and pistols - abandoned, according to the writing on the back, in Gares Abud (possibly the village of Aboud):

And he was present at or shortly after the liberation of Jerusalem. Here's a photograph of Bab al-Amud, the Damascus Gate:

He was a Victorian, born before the first aeroplane flight in a shepherd's cottage on the Sussex Downs, one of eighteen children. And around the age of twenty he was taking part in a battle with tanks, and soon afterwards saw Jerusalem, then still largely contained within those walls without which, according to a hymn he must have sung in church, was that faraway green hill. But let's not romanticise his war too much. In May 1918, his regiment moved to France, and was involved in the Battle of the Somme of 1918.  And it was there, or soon afterwards, that he was taken prisoner, and spent the rest of the war in forced labour.

I'm vague about most details of his war service because he never talked about it. It marked him for the rest of his life: he was a taciturn, solitary man, and spent much of his time working alone, as a gardener. It marked his wife, my grandmother too, and their children, my uncle and my mother (who because of my father's war service had a deep interest in Lawrence of Arabia, but that's another story). Wars cast long shadows. But on this day I like to remember him pottering in his vegetable patch, in the green shade of a peaceful summer evening of the long ago. I like to think that digging was a kind of assertion. Not of victory, because that's too strong a word, too loaded, but of nothing more than his survival of history.


Anonymous Sergey said...

Thank you, Paul!
Very sincere post.
You once published photo of the tank, but the others I'm seeing for the first time. Damascus Gates didn't change - but it's much more crowdy place now :)
In Russia memories of First World War overshadowed by the Second.
My grandgranddad also fought in it - in Poland and Galicia. It was dangerous in Stalin's time to talk about your service in the army of Tzar, so he wrote his memories after Stalin's death. I find his diaries some years ago - may be I would publish it.

November 13, 2013 5:35 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Adding those memories to the great memory would be a fine thing.

I have a few other photos, but most are fairly cryptic. What is that man doing in a cave? Why are those troops waiting by a canal? Where is that truck going, and to what purpose? Most of the name places aren't quite right - I guess my grandfather heard them and transcribed them as best he could. Might do some more detective work.

November 13, 2013 7:54 pm  
Anonymous Sergey said...

Good idea. Truth abiut our history much more interesting comparing even with fantastic world of Lawrence (I mean the film :)

November 16, 2013 7:57 pm  

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