Sunday 13 November 2016

I Vow to Thee my Country

I Vow to thee my Country is the obvious title for this post. I used to have mixed feeelings about this hymn, feeling that it perhaps glorified war and praised blind obedience. But I was wrong. It speaks eloquently and movingly of the values of those generations from the first half of the 20th Century who gave their lives, or scarred the rest of their lives, so that we who came along later could enjoy the fun, freedom and prosperity which they didn't. It also speaks, in the second verse, of a more noble and ideal kingdom, of which we all dream. And it's a perfect song for this rather different post:

This is a sort of guest post, but an unusual and special one for Remembrance Sunday. It is written by my late Grandfather, Cyril Edward Cyphus (1895 - 1989), because 100 years ago, he was one of tens of thousands of soldiers who were living in that man-made hell called the Western Front. He was 21 years old in 1916, a gentle country boy, born and raised in the village of Littleworth in Oxfordshire, where his mother was the village schoolmistress.

Cyril was a gentle man as well as a gentleman, a church organist by profession. He lived to a great age, so I knew him well, as a thoughtful, cultured and good-humoured man. The last thing I could ever imagine him doing was fighting. Yet he had felt obliged to answer the call of King and country, and so found himself on the Somme, having enlisted earlier in 1916, undergone a brief period of training, and sailed over to France in August 2016.

Here is a picture of him in his army uniform:-

He wrote his memoirs later in life, and described what it was like to live through two World Wars. Of course unlike so many others, he did at least survive, or else my mother, and so I, would never have existed. Here is a very precious picture of him, taken not long before he died, when he met his first great-grand-daughter, my first child Felicity. It features four generations, with a young-looking me and my late mother Margaret:

Whilst serving on the Somme, he contracted trench fever, and was brought home for a period of convalescence. He subsequently volunteered for the Tank Corps, and was back in France as a tank driver for the breakthrough which eventually ended the War. I will post further extracts as later events reach their centenary.

Here is the section describing his life in the trenches during the autumn of 1916:-

"For the next few months my memory is rather hazy which is understandable. Rations did not always reach us at regular intervals. There was one period, I remember, when food did not reach us for about 36 hours. By the time rations reached, us, a little had been taken here and a little there, and in spite of casualties they were always in short supply. Some buildings   at   Arras   remained badly   damaged,   but   in   most of the towns and villages in the area only rubble was left and there was little life.

There had been continuous heavy firing for a long time, and it still went on with no time to clear up the mess or bury the dead. Mules struggled, along carrying their loads with the greatest difficulty, for the roads were full of shell holes, some very deep, and the artillery of both sides was pounding away over our heads.

Occasionally one would come across an arm or a leg half buried as well as dead mules as we proceeded along the communication trench. Rats abounded everywhere. On one occasion I tried to sleep within a few yards of a long range gun and at another time I would be standing on the fire-step in the front line staring out into the darkness and very lights popping up from different directions, so heavy with sleep that the only way to keep awake was to arrange my fixed, bayonet in such a way near my helmet that I was awakened every time I began to nod. Although fraught with danger, looking out into no-mans' land in darkness was such a strain that survival did not seem to matter.

Two hours on the fire-step and four hours in the dug-out at the back of the trench, among the rats was the order of the day - and night - in the front line, but of course one often had to do extended periods as casualties mounted.

Back in the dug-out it was difficult to keep one's food from the rats who would nibble through a canvas haversack in no time. Names like Bapaume, Albert, Frecourt etc., had little meaning for they hardly existed, but the statue of the figure of the Virgin Mary in a horizontal position on the ruins of Albert Cathedral was a well-known land-mark.

There was a network of muddy trenches, the stench being drowned by the smell of chloride, the never-ending sound of guns, large and small, with sporadic bursts of machine-gun fire, and at night, very lights provided a continuous fire-work display. Ours were much inferior to those of the Germans, as was the case of all other material and equipment. Sleep could only be had in snatches. One was so miserable with filth and vermin that only one thought was uppermost in one's mind: a forlorn hope of eventual release. A remarkable sense of humour on the part of the lower ranks particularly made these conditions tolerable, and kept one alive with a glimmer of hope. During these months an extraordinary sense of optimism based on ignorance kept me going.

Early in November 1916, owing to pressure from the public, the authorities in the War Office decided to release some of the soldiers who had been in France since 1914 or 1915 and replace then with NCO’s and men who had been holding safe office jobs in England. These men arrived in the front line having had no training and no experience in trench warfare. One of these NCO’s was put in charge of our section of the line while I was on duty in the front line, and being new to France, he did not understand that there was no place for "red tape" in the front line and this made him unpopular among the men.

I had been put in charge of a gas alarm, in case of gas attack, when I as taken ill with a high temperature.    Now because men so often faked illness by chewing cordite or by other means, little notice was taken of anything but wounds. However it was obvious that I was in a bad way and this new NCO gave me permission to lie down in the dug-out. Soon a young officer came along and asked why there was no-one in charge of the gas alarm. The corporal had omitted to send anyone in my place and would not admit it, and I was hauled before the officer and charged with leaving my post without permission, a serious offence. I was remanded and sent to report to the nearest MO and because of my obviously weak condition, another private was sent with me to carry my rifle and equipment as well as his own and to struggle along two miles of communication trench to the Medical Office where the MO. arranged for me to be driven to the nearest Field Ambulance.

A field ambulance was a group of Nissen huts a safe distance behind the lines which served as a temporary hospital for men with minor ailments who were usually sent back to the front as soon as they were well enough. The beds were covered with three blankets of a dark brown shade which was infested with bugs (or fleas) and there was a staff of RAMC orderlies to attend to us, but not a woman in the camp. The chateau in the grounds provided accommodation for the staff, who lived in comparative luxury.

During the three weeks that I was there, I was entirely isolated from anyone I knew and cut off from means of communication as no letters were forwarded. This was particularly hard for me, because I was there for my 21st birthday and none of the parcels or letters sent to me ever reached me!"

I hope that readers of my blog will appreciate this insight into what Cyril, and thousands like him, went through. Truly, those of us born after these events have nothing to complain about, however "stressful" our lives may seem.

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