I was never in the military, but my father was. He joined the British Navy when he was twenty. Sailing the high seas was not a new thing for him. He already had his sea legs, having spent a couple of years working as a cabin steward on ocean liners travelling from Southampton to New York, South Africa and Australia.
He had his 20th birthday on May 4 1939. It wasn’t difficult to see that the world was gearing up for another war. My dad, Seajay, often told us that the First World War came to an end because the belligerent countries ran out of troops to kill and to be killed. They waited another twenty years for a new generation of young men and women to grow up and become old enough to send into the trenches, the skies, and the oceans.
Seajay’s father, my grandfather, was conscripted into the army for the First World War. He had horses and a wagon in London and was told to bring them with him. His job was to drive a munitions wagon to and from the front lines in France. He made it through the war and was still alive at the end, but he was badly damaged. He spent most of his post-war life in a hospital where he was treated for what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. Back then it was called shell shock.
He died in 1957, a few months before we emigrated to Canada. I never met him. Children were not allowed in the mental hospitals of the day. Hospital is maybe too kind a word for the warehouses in which they stored mentally damaged people.
My dad decided to go from the Cunard Line into the Royal Navy. If he volunteered for the navy, he would not be conscripted into the army. He didn’t want to suffer the same fate as his father. Another consideration for him was that the navy is the only one of the British armed forces that does not require recruits to swear allegiance to the monarchy.
The Atlantic Ocean was no safer than the fields of France. One incident brought this home particularly sharply.
The first ship Seajay served on after war broke out was HMS Hood, the biggest battleship in the British fleet. He was a telegraphist, one of the crew who laboured below decks receiving and transmitting coded radio messages. He took some training, passed some exams, and was promoted from ordinary telegraphist to telegraphist. The Hood already had a full complement of them, so he was transferred to another battleship in December 1940.
On the 24th of May 1941, the Hood was sunk by a German battleship off the coast of Denmark. Of its crew of 1418 men, 1415 went down with the ship. Only 3 survived. There is a memorial web site that lists the names, ages and ranks of the full crew serving on the Hood on that fateful day. The vast majority were young men in their late teens and early 20s.
One of them was Jack Till, a young man of about the same age who became my dad’s best friend in the Navy. Their friendship was a memory carried for the rest of Seajay’s life. He even kept a letter Jack sent him from the Hood between the time my dad left it and when it was sunk.
By coincidence, one of the 20-year-olds who went down with the Hood was Able Seaman Ewen McDonald. He was one of my mother’s cousins from Mallaig, the West Highland fishing village where my maternal grandmother was born. My parents had still not met each other at the time.
Another memory my dad kept all his life was carrying his mother to a car and bringing her to a train station during the blitz. She was suffering from the latter stages of breast cancer. While they were going to the station, a bomb destroyed their home.
That’s one of the things about wars. They are not just the business of the men and women in uniform, the ones who fight in the armed forces. They are also the business of their families and the civilians who live in their communities. Any of them can be killed at any time. Quite often, the difference between living or dying is a matter of coincidence, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Later in his life, I would go over to Stratford and take him to the Remembrance Day celebration. He would put on his navy blue blazer with the Navy League emblem on the breast pocket and he would march to the cenotaph with the other old sailors. They would hold their heads high and remember, with considerable justified pride, the contribution they made to the war against fascism.
On those occasions, he would tell me that the important element of November 11 is not so much to remember the dead, although that was always a part of it. The important part for him was to remember the survivors. These were the people who lived through the war and carried the wounds and scars with them when they returned home. Some lost limbs, others lost their minds. By the time he died in 2009, there were fewer and fewer of them showing up on Remembrance Day.
They are replaced by younger veterans, new generations of men and women sent by their government to faraway lands to kill and be killed and to return with physical and mental injuries that will never go away.
My dad always remembered the war he fought in. He also opposed all those that followed.
There has to be a better way to resolve our differences.