My grandad’s diary

I found my grandad’s soldiering diary a couple of weeks before Remembrance Day while I was rationalising a cupboard. There it was, in a file labelled Memorabilia, a skinny little black thing, a Charles Letts diary for 1918, covering just the last few months of the war. I had mislaid it for years. His handwriting was loopy and legible, his spelling was pretty good, but he’d very little space to write about the momentous events he was witnessing. I skimmed through it, wanting to save a proper read till right time. I’d never met my granddad, but my mum had told me he’d died far too young with his lungs ruined: he’d lain out for three nights in no-man’s land, until rescued by a stretcher party.
The right time came on Remembrance Day, when I got home from a night out at the theatre seeing a play about Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, called Not About Heroes by Stephen Macdonald. The two young poets were officers, obsessed with the idea of looking after their men, both willing to sacrifice themselves in order not be called cowards. But my grandad was not an officer. Having grown up in the coalfields of Lanarkshire, near Blantyre he’d made his living first as a bookie and then a grocer. My mum told me that he was hopeless at both occupations, and they were often very hard up. As a bookie he lost money and as a grocer he gave people tick and ended up with nothing. But the diary shows him an intelligent and observant man, who was interested in the lives of the people he saw about him, horrified by the devastation in the towns he marched through, and fit enough at 32, to come second in a 100 yards race and earn 10 francs winning in a boxing bout. His accounts of battles were terse and understated:
In the attack this morning bit of a mix up but we got a few thousand yards, Black Watch and Devons (?) get badly cut up. Saw, first time, German and British dead. Sick at the sight….this has been some week. It is wonderful how the men stand it. Our casualties are about 20 per cent…we have one of our fellows buried alive..
I sat that night, with a glass of wine, and read every entry. With the autumn came the big bloody battles of the endgame, in one of which young Wilfred Owen had died. The officer classes in the play were heroic, but my grandad, William McCallum, felt no need to pretend to be heroic. He noted his relief when he was held back from the front line to do some clerical job. Perhaps as a literate Scot, familiar with Dickens, Burns and Shakespeare, he was in demand to do paper work? And when he reports, on October 1, hurting his hand at a railway station, you could feel the relief and hope seeping through the pencil lines of his diary like the blood from his smashed finger. Maybe he would survive and see his wife and his baby son again! The soldiers knew the war was about to end. He writes on October 3, 1918:
American doctor examines my finger and sends me down the line…. look like getting out the worst month of the whole war. What luck!
That was the last he saw of the front line, he was home within two weeks and the war ended of course on 11 November that year. Suddenly it struck me that, had he not damaged his finger (perhaps shut in a train carriage door?), he might well have killed in those terrible last battles, like poor Wilfred Owen. In which case of course I would not exist because he would not have returned to Scotland and gone to bed with my gran to conceive my mother.
Then it occurred to me that maybe he had hurt himself deliberately, in order to get out of the fighting. There’s no clue in the diary, but then there wouldn’t be would there? I’m just glad he survived and had 15 more years of life before he died from his lung problem. The mystery is this: he says nothing in the diary about being gassed and lying out in no man’s land for three days, though he does mention comrades who had experienced this. Was the family story a fabrication? I’ll never know the truth, but I feel close to Willie McCallum , the granddad I never met.

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