A hundred years ago the First World War began, and a few months after that my Grandpa Gabriel joined up to play his part in the conflict.
I remember him as a reserved man, who liked a Dunhill cigarette and small glass of brandy while doing the crossword in his flat situated above his dental surgery. We used to joke that he wasn’t quiet by choice, it was just that he was drowned out by the presence of my Grandma Dora with her purple rinse hair and her booming Welsh accented voice.
Gabriel was born in Swansea, South Wales, the youngest of five children to Israel, a Lithuanian-born chazzan (cantor), and Leah who originally came from Poland. He joined the army seemingly as soon as he was able, according to rumor, to get away from his father who beat him.
He became a Private – then later Lance Corporal in the King’s Royal Rifles. His ID number was R-13130, which made many of his army comrades superstitiously consider him doomed. But ironically Gabriel was the lucky one, surviving when so many did not.
His military record includes fighting in some of the most historic and bloody encounters of the War from the early trench encounters to the closing battles including: Ypres, the Somme, and the Battle of Cambrai which finally led to breaking through the previously impregnable Hindenburg line. He also took part in a mostly forgotten sideshow in Salonika where the British Army was sent to support the Greeks. His was a war fought amid close quarters in the muddy chaos of the trenches with the possibility of death never far away.
Despite being wounded by shrapnel, almost dying of dysentery and contracting malaria, he made it back home alive (initially in a wheelchair and emaciated), with a Military Medal for gallantry.
But Grandpa didn’t talk about the war, and we kids were told not to ask him about it. I remember when I was about five years old being with my brother in my grandparent’s flat asking him excitedly to tell me about the war. The next thing I recall is him taking down his trousers to show me the back of his legs with chunks missing and pockmarked skin where he’d been injured. ‘You want to know about war, that’s war’, he said – or words to that effect.
Over the years he did let slip snippets to my father, uncle and aunt about his experiences giving clues about what it was like. He mentioned winter in the trenches; so cold and so muddy that the coats they wore were frozen into the ground. He spoke of walking up to the front on the Somme, passing the bodies of Canadian soldiers laid out for over half a mile – or as he put it the length of Kew Road (where he lived in London). He once told my aunt that after he was injured by a shell in his leg at Ypres, the surgeon in the medical tent dipped a pad of cotton wool in iodine and pushed it into the wound – there were no anesthetics.
It wasn’t until after he died in 1979 that we found his keepsakes of the war which he’d kept from view. There is a picture postcard of him looking smart in his uniform with a poignant message sent to his brothers just before he heading off to the Western Front, ‘au revoir (not goodbye)’.
From his time in Greece, there are delicately preserved dried flowers picked ‘on the banks of the Struma (River) at 12 midnight on Wednesday October 11th 1916 near the Nehori Bridge on patrol’.
There is also the letter from the War Office sent to his mother informing her of his Military Medal.
There are a number of other mementos including a picture with comrades grouped around a machine gun, a message to his ‘dear Mother’, his prayer book issued to ‘Jewish soldiers and sailors’, and his ID tag with surname incorrectly spelt MYRON (a perennial hazard in our family) .
His silence about the war generated its own hum of curiosity and wonder among his children and grandchildren. Looking back I see two versions of his life. There is my grandfather, the boy turned soldier and war hero (although he would never have allowed such immodesty), who is known through the crumbs of information he divulged, along with his memorabilia and war records. They give hints of his character: his courage, sensitivity and humanity in the midst of unimaginable horror.
The second version of his life is the family man, who once out of the army went to dental school, and married a Jewish girl from back home in South Wales. He settled down to a life in an upper middle class suburb of London, working hard (until his dying day aged 83) to provide for his family, sending his children to English private schools, and pursuing his passion as a Freemason. He enjoyed playing practical jokes and tussling with his grandchildren showing us some of his old boxing moves (another hobby from his army days). If he had demons from the war we didn’t see them – all we saw was our Grandpa.
He was loved and revered for what he knew of him, and also for what we half-knew about him of his time at war. In thinking now about him now, I am filled with wonder at what he did as a soldier, how he survived and how he retained a sense of himself throughout it all. I am sure I could not have done the same. I am also in awe of what he did afterwards in providing love and security for all his children, in building a family and leading by example through his decency and modesty.
So in remembering the First World War and the millions who suffered as a result, I shall keep in mind one man – my Grandpa Gabriel, R-13130.
Do you have a family history involving World War One? Please share.
A special note of thanks to my cousin Helen Style for all her help in gathering much of the material and information in this blog.
A full display of my grandfather’s materials from World War One will be put up on-line in due course