War Stories

Aug 31, 2014

There's a good set of stories in the family about the First World War courtesy of my great-grandfather Reginald. The idea of him as a proto-Flashheart is doubtless exaggerated (that said when he met his wife "she was 18 and he was 24 and had been engaged twice before") - but according to the legend he not only discovered a German spy disguised as an army padre by noticing he was wearing the wrong number of pips, but rode a motorcycle through the trenches to save a friend’s girl from a nunnery threatened by the German advance. That one has it all really - solid story. Less on message, he caught typhoid fever - but recovered and survived the war.

His brother left a very different set of stories. Harry Parsons died in an air raid in 1917 - an unlikely way to go, only around 1,500 died because of raids in the entire war. There’s a story passed down that he died wandering into the street to get a better look at the Zeppelins, as it happens there are accounts of people in London doing exactly this:

"Raids hadn't become a very serious thing and everybody crowded out into the street to watch. They didn't take cover or dodge." Lt Charles Chabot, 39 Squadron RFC.

But Harry wasn't one of them. As newspaper archives were opened up my dad found what had been published at the time:

Henry Over Parsons, 33, violinist [...] According to Superintendent Woolger, a fire brigade officer, the back part of the house was demolished and the whole house of 18 rooms more or less damaged by the explosion. A section of Royal Engineers found the body. The bed appeared to have been turned right over and twisted into a most fantastic shape. Deceased was thrown from the bed.

The story about wandering into the street is interesting, the report of this inquest is attached in the several places it was syndicated with another where the coroner did mark people going to look out their open doors as a contributor to their deaths. This possibly explains how how this idea came into family legend. But there were also direct experiences of the next generation that would colour telling of the strange Great War bombings. Reginald was called up again in the Second World War and during the Battle of Britain was "standing on a balcony [with another officer] watching an aerial dogfight overhead when a spent cannon shell hit the other man, killing him." My grandfather described his own memories of air-raids:

In September 1940 we were staying temporarily on our home in Acton.I remember watching dockland burning on the night of September 7. Every night for some weeks we slept under the kitchen table, pushed under the staircase for further protection. I remember Brian, who was 9, saying during one very noisy air raid, 'Mummy, I don't want to die.' It could easily have happened. A bomb dropped in the front garden of the house directly opposite us, but the blast went the other way and our house was hardly damaged.

From these you can see how the naivety of someone wanting to look could become attached to a convenient relative. In general going into the street says something about the period we want to be true - it reflects how we retrospectively see the First World War. Bombers over London were an intrusion of the ugly twentieth century on a world that didn't know it was coming. We want them to be drawn to the novelty, like a child playing with a brightly coloured snake. We want to offer them a moment of realisation, to understand if nothing else, before that innocence is lost.

But it's rare we're given that chance. It becomes clear only in retrospect when one world is over and another begun.

Another distant uncle (as so many of these stories involve by necessity) William Pullen died in the Somme. On school trips to the battlefields my siblings and I would look for his name. When they found the collection of soldiers’ wills last year I requested a copy of his. He left all his possessions to his mother.

There's more to say about Harry aside "he died". He was a gifted musician from a family of musicians. He went to study at the Royal Academy of Music and while he's there he meets a girl, Jessie, who he performed in a duo with for several years before they get married (newspaper reports of these performances are a reminder that not only sad things are documented). They have a daughter together - and here is where things start to go wrong.

In what was either an exasperation of a long-standing problem or else a sudden change he becomes deeply unwell - both delusional and depressed. He goes home to Wales, but his mother can't handle caring for both her mentally disabled daughter (Elsie) and her increasingly manic and violent son - so she commits him to a local asylum.

After a few months there their daughter dies and Harry is checked out by his father (his absence from the family home suggests he may have away with Jessie and the baby). The discharge says he's 'unimproved' and he's back in within six months. He spends the next three years in the asylum.

He slowly improves. He starts eating more, the doctors note he's happier when playing the piano. Eventually he leaves the asylum. He moves back to London and starts teaching the violin again. Within a year his house explodes and he dies being thrown from his bed.

Later Elsie would also be committed to the asylum as her parents became less able to care for her. She died inside of an epileptic fit after never speaking a word in her life. The family stayed in touch with Jessie, my granddad writes about meeting her.

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