In Remembrance

14 11 2010

This Thursday I was in Court when 11 O’Clock struck and as always on November 11th the arguments and analysis stopped, the cross examination paused and uncharacteristic silence descended.

The same will happen this Sunday. The sacrifice of those who served is too enormous to truly appreciate and imagine. So like most people I usually focus on my own links with the generations that fought in the World Wars.

The grandfather I knew.

Handel Lewis was born, lived and died in Ystradgynlais. At 16 he started work as a labourer at a pit head, then at 18 he went to work down the mine. Despite being considered an essential industry he joined the South Wales Borders as soon as the call went out at the start of World War 2. He was later transferred to the Essex Regiment to make up for terrible casualties.

He spent the early years of the war in North Africa, grinding sand between his teeth. When I used to complain of the rain or the cold on my long childhood walks to the pit head I was told bluntly that if I spent more than a year in the desert I’d never worry about the rain again. Which was fair enough. He spent his later war in Sicilly, then Italy until suffering a major injury in storming Monte Cassino.

He taught me that war can often be a noble thing if it was to protect the weak but it is seldom glorious. He lost his left arm in the Battle of Monte Cassino. For years I watched him still struggle. Making use of his teeth to hold things.

The two most striking stories he told and retold me hammered home the horror of war. The first was about him being invalided out of the army and finally returning to Wales. In walking the hills he encountered an Italian Prisoner of War detail. A warden spoke to an Italian Sailor and told him Lewis was at Cassino. The Italian asked my grand dad if he could tell him about Cassino as his wife and child were there and at that point my granddad, a man in his 20s with limited social experience and little nuance told him “there’s nothing there. It’s flattened. I’m sorry.” He then watched the Italian break down, sob, scream and then pass out.

He told me then at that point he forgive the Italians, years later he forgave the Germans but he never forgave America or specifically the USAF.

From the bombed out ruins at the foot of Monte Cassino he was ordered to go upstream and fetch water. Whilst there, he heard the sound of bombers overhead. It was the nightly USAF bombing raid which attempted to bomb the Nazis out of the hilltop monastery. It always failed because they used the catacombs to shelter when the alarm was raised. This time as sometimes before and sometimes later, the USAF had miscalculated and they released their deadly cargo on British and Commonwealth lines. As ordered , my grandfather and his comrade collected the water upstream in canteens and returned to a scene of unimaginable horror. He told me of mangled bodies and the growing anger and recognition that it was allies that wrought such carnage. In taking in the full horror he took a gulp from his canteen and spat. The water was bloody. The bodies had been thrown far upstream.

I feel privileged to have shared these stories at a young age with my granddad. I know it was only late in life that he felt able to talk about it and I suppose the constant questioning from an enquiring child eventually brought it out.

Why did he join? I know to serve his country was a secondary motive. He would most frequently talk about standing up to bullies or standing up to Nazis. He had a class consciousness that was present in all South Wales mining towns back then. Yet even that idealism was full of working class pragmatism. He did it because they had to, because it had to happen then.

That blunt and bluff pragmatism continued to the end, thinking of it brings a smile to my face. As his health failed and ability to walk decreased he started to take his pint in the nearest pub to home… The Conservative and Unionist Club. When confronted by a precocious teenage Darren he bluntly told m it was the nearest place and they would never win a seat in Ystradgynlais anyway. That said he contented himself with the occasional guerrilla action behind enemy lines. Like all the old boys from the Council estate, he was present, but obviously unaware, when the Club’s framed photographer of Thatcher went missing.

I miss him terribly.

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