Saturday, August 09, 2014

Family and War - Walter's Story

The recent commemorations prompted me to jot down what I knew of my own family's experience of the first World War. The first was what I know of my grandma's first husband; this is the story of her second - my grandfather.

Walter Henry Peatman was 10 years old when he heard the news that his father Henry had died as a result of a farming accident. Falling from the top of a wagon, Henry had hit his head, and although he initially revived enough to travel home, he died that evening. Life was hard and money was short for the large family and Walter was the eldest son. He stopped going to school and got some work on a farm near his home in Ropsley in Lincolnshire. His first job was poorly paid, even by the standards of the day but another farmer had more sympathy and took him on for twice what he had been earning.

It was a world where class structure was firm, and deference was expected. A labourer could lose his job for not showing respect by doffing his cap to his landowner. Losing your job usually meant losing your home, as many labourers lived in tied cottages. Walter had even heard of men losing their jobs and homes because their children had failed to pay the respect deemed necessary to their so-called superiors.

In 1906 he took the huge decision to emigrate to Canada. He sailed steerage class, which took bout a week, and the subsequent train journey across Canada took 3 days. I understand he initially settled in Regina, Saskatchewan eventually living in a small town called Francis, about 40 miles south east of Regina. We know that because that is the address he gave on his attestation paper to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force on 17th January 1916. He always spoke warmly of Canada, as it had offered him opportunities the class-structure of England would have prevented.  A tattoo of a maple leaf on his arm was the enduring evidence of his attachment.

Walter was my grandad, although I (and everyone else, including his mates at the pub) always called him Pop. He, like many veterans of the horror of the Great War, very rarely said anything about his experiences of the trenches. My dad remembers asking him if he killed any Germans. He simply said "I don't know. I shot at a few". We once asked him about 'going over the top'. He wasn't a man who exaggerated or boasted, but he told us he went over 11 times. The odds of surviving that must be slim, although I once read some Canadian attacks had lower casualty rates. Perhaps he benefitted from that. He also once told me of a card game going on in a dug-out. He went down the trench line to the latrine. When he came back, the dug-out wasn't there; it had been hit by a shell.

War has its lasting effects, and Pop was once caught in a trench collapse. The terror of being completely covered and trapped in the dark meant he subsequently struggled to sleep in the dark when he came home. He told of how when he first came home, he left a light on in his room at night, and gradually used less and less light until he had cured himself of fear of the dark. What other terrors filled his dreams we'll never know.

When Pop emigrated, he probably didn't have much expectation returning to England to visit his family - it was a long and expensive journey. However, the war meant he was in Europe, so he went back to Lincolnshire after the war, intending to return to Canada. That was where he met a young widow with two children, who came from Nottingham, but was staying with people from his village who she had got to know when they came to town to sell produce. She (my grandma) wouldn't agree to sailing back to Canada. My dad says she referred to the sinking of the Titanic as having placed that fear in her mind. So they married and eventually settled in Chilwell, near Nottingham, which is why my dad hasn't got a Canadian accent and I exist.

In the late 80s, when I visited the Somme, I found a section of preserved trenches which were part of the Canadian line. I've no idea if this was part of a section where Pop served, but it somehow made it all feel a little more real, and not just a family story. It also made me want to trace his steps, insofar as that's possible. One day I'd love to go to Canada and see if I can find where he lived over there, and at least visit the towns he lived in and see what they are like today.

For a person of that era, Pop fitted in a lot of excitement, travel, action and danger in those first 30-odd years of his life. He spent the rest of them (he lived to 91) in and around Nottingham, mostly in Chilwell. Maybe he was ready for a quiet life.

1 comment:

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