Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible of circumstance and they become more extraordinary because of it.
Today I’m going to raise a glass to my Great Grandpa George who was was pitched as a young lad into one of the bloodiest battles of World War One, the Battle of the Somme.
In 1916 brave men fought for our freedom, in the cold hellish misery of the trenches, on the western front in northern France. In a brutal battle of attrition lasting five months, British and German troops faced each other’s trenches only separated by a few hundred yards of no-man’s land. The British force consisted of soldiers from Britain and Ireland, as well as troops from Newfoundland, South Africa and India. The British generals staged a massive artillery bombardment and sent 100,000 men over the top to take the German trenches. They were confident of victory.
But the British soldiers unable to break through the German defences were mown down in their thousands by machine gun and artillery fire. This day set a bloody precedent: the Somme campaign wore on for five months and, in all, more than a million soldiers from the British, German and French armies were wounded or killed.
George was attached as a gunner to the Royal Field Artillery and standing behind his field gun bore witness to the worst scenes that a human can behold or ever imagine.
Unlike his friends and another million young men, he was lucky and came home to his sweetheart to enjoy nearly a hundred years of life and to watch his family grow. I would sit on his knee while he patiently listened, enraptured to my chatterings about ladybirds and bugs, and it is only with the passing of time that I appreciate why he was so kind and patient. Sometimes I saw him looking reflective and far away, lost in another world, but then he would catch me looking at him and smile with so much love that it seemed like the sun had come out from behind a dark cloud.
Even though I was only small I knew he was different and special, the darkness kept inside of him made his light shine so much brighter. And now I am older I know how much his bitter sacrifices directly link to my life and the freedoms I am blessed with today.
To my Great Grandpa George and to all those who are brave and courageous. I am truly grateful.