Talks with grandpa

My grandpa (Harry Roy Warren, 1896–1978) was one of those vets from the Great War; a cartographer by later profession and in every spare moment, an illuminator. How he lived to become that, get married, have kids, then grow into the paterfamilias of an immense brood of grandchildren, is hard to explain. His diary is consistently matter-of-fact. Though capable of sentiment, he would not record it. But knowing where he fought — pretty much every major battlefield in France to which Canadians were assigned — the fact he came home at all was remarkable.

Dozens of grandchildren; but as the eldest son of his eldest son I considered myself special. He had the time of day for me, too, and I often asked about his experience of war. He would then fall silent. Getting exciting, boy’s-own anecdotes from him was pulling teeth. He had, as it were, been there, done that, and didn’t want to talk about it.

On art and particularly on calligraphy, draughtmanship, engraving, he was full of words. His views on “modern art” were deliciously unrestrained; though he went to lengths to avoid knowing anything about it. There were the “great masters” of the Renaissance, and after them, nothing. A Methodist from the farmland of Ontario, who made careful notes on every Sunday sermon; he wore the apron of the Freemasons. He was not in the habit of befriending Catholics and yet, I noticed everything he loved was essentially Catholic, and near to mediaeval. (Among his heroes, I discovered, was Savonarola. I’m still trying to get my head around that.) I daresay he is Catholic, now, but I will stick to history.

He was a patriot of the kind I can understand. He thought the land of his origin, holy. He could not exist without it; could not be what he was. More abstractly, he thought our British connexion — “One Flag, One Fleet, One Empire” — a gift. We were part of a family, extended round the world. When the war in Europe broke out, Canadians answered the call of Mother England, promptly. Grandpa was eighteen, but one had to be nineteen to sign up. Therefore he lied. He was on the boat by Christmas.

In the diary he refers casually to the enemy by “Fritz,” “the Bosche,” “Heinie Hun,” and some livelier epithets. His neat tiny finical entries mention great and famous battles as passing, workaday events. Perhaps the biggest event the diary records is the day in the spring of 1917 when his horse broke legs in a mortar hole, and he had to shoot it. (This horse had been his stalwart companion through more than I can imagine.) And there is more, but it requires close attention. In the same diary, from that day forward, he now refers to the enemy as, “the Germans.”

Cheerful he remains, through every adversity, and to an album he assembled of diary excerpts, souvenirs and photographs, he affixed the happy title, “Up the Line with the Best o’Luck.” There are moments when it reads like an appointment book, so well does he conceal dark matter.

I said little sentiment and yet, towards the end of his five-year European tour, I sense a terrible pity. He was among those who advanced to the Watch on the Rhine, expecting guerrilla attacks and possibly larger surprises from a defeated and embittered foe. But there were none. No one had the stomach for fighting any more. He was now among the occupiers of a smashed Germany; among people desperate and starving; women and children begging for scraps. His heart went out to them. Late in his life, when I asked him again to tell me about the War, he spoke very movingly of this.

And of the War itself, he would only say, that it wasn’t worth it. That it was the stupidest thing men had ever done. That he was speaking for himself, but also for all of his comrades, standing and fallen. That they had descended into Hell, for no reason.

One hundred years later, what is there to add?