The photograph ( see my next post) shows a young man in uniform, a soldier, from the First World War. His uniform is plain (it is almost possible to feel the weight and the coarseness of the fabric) and completely without the embellishments of heroism. He turns away from the camera, gazing out of the frame at an angle of 45 degrees. Composed but unsmiling, his eyes seem to focus on some long-forgotten middle-distance. He is young man, still smooth-skinned and slightly boyish, but there is, in this picture, little to suggest the energy and passion of youth. His hair is thick and there is the ghost of a wave, but it is slicked back from the high forehead and parted with military precision; it is ruthlessly curtailed in a horizontal line high above the one visible ear. This ear appears large, naked and vulnerable in consequence, its lobe both thick and oddly fleshy.
The young man is not, perhaps, handsome, but he is not unattractive: his eyes appear open and honest beneath their neat, angled brows; the nose is long and straight, if a little too pronounced and tending in the direction of sharpness. His lips, though thin, are well-defined, and his chin is just strong enough to be passable. His neck is slender but solid; it fills, without straining, the close-fitting and restrictive military collar. His shoulders, however, appear sloping and slight: he is not a big man – for all that there is here neither object nor person against which to measure his stature. He stands somewhat stiffly, though without self-consciousness; his polished buttons gleam, seeming to reflect both his sense of purpose and his patriotic pride.
He is proud. He has served his country. He is also grateful. He is grateful to have survived to pose for this photograph when so many others have died. The war is nearing an end and, against all the odds, he has outlasted both its bloody, mindless fury and its grinding, dispassionate indifference. Where, he wonders, is the fourteen-year-old boy who so eagerly lied about his age? Where is the drummer-boy who became, in the end, just another frightened soldier? But it is almost over. Soon, he will be home. He tries to think about the life he left behind but his recollections have no shape or substance. He remembers faces: his mother, his father, his brother, the girl he hopes to marry. This photograph will go before him, a harbinger of the still shocking reality that is his still youthful and unscarred flesh and his unshed blood. What will they make of him, he wonders, and what will he make of his future?
This photograph was professionally produced. Although faded by time, the photographer’s name is faintly discernible at the bottom of the frame: it reads Martin..????. He was, I think, more than a merely competent photographer. The photograph was produced, very much in accordance with the conventions that applied to the portraiture of the day and also in such a way as to permit it to be sent through the post, though, in fact, it bears neither postmark nor any written message. I believe that my grandmother, to whom it was sent early in 1918, received it in an envelope and accompanied by a letter. Regretfully, that letter did not survive.
I believe that the photograph was probably intended as both a kind of testament to my grandfather’s military service and as a promise to the future. Certainly, my grandmother loved this picture and always showed it with pride and great affection. At the time she first held it, it must have represented the only ‘proof’ she could have that her man, her love, was safe and well and that her future would be happy and secure. She was not, at least as I knew her, either a romantic or a sentimental woman, but she was fiercely loyal to and protective of those for whom she cared. No doubt she shared her pride – and her heart-felt relief – with her immediate family: her parents, her younger brother, Alfred, and her sister, Violet. The latter had not been so fortunate: by 1918, her own young man had already died of a fever in a military hospital, I think somewhere in France; and, although she was to live to be ninety, she never married or, indeed, ‘walked out’ with a man again.
As a child, I remember this photograph being kept, unframed, amongst my grandmother’s precious papers. From time to time, she would take them out and ‘sort’ them, growing quiet, and sometimes tearful, before returning them to la large square biscuit tin that was patterned with a kind of ‘tortoise shell’ effect. When she died, I claimed the photograph for myself and it has always been a part of my home. Today, it sits on a shelf close to the desk where I work in the company of half a dozen or so similar family records: myself, aged six; my daughter, aged four; my ‘musical’ brother with his melodeon; my maternal grandmother, posing on a rocky beach, windswept but smiling. I look at all of them often – I have a strong sense of the past – but this photograph of my grandfather is special. It both fascinates and saddens me to try to ‘read’ the face of this much-loved stranger. I compare the fresh-faced but serous young man with my own precious memories of a teasing, playful, silver-haired and severely bronchial grandfather who rode a bicycle and always had sweets in the pocket of his jacket. As a small child, I would watch for him returning from his work at the nearby cement factory, pushing his bicycle up the long hill that was the last stage of his journey home. He died, aged sixty-two, from a mismanaged bout of pneumonia at a time when I was still too young to have found my way into the story of the man he had been.