I always find it difficult to teach the GCSE war poetry syllabus. I can easily get a little over emotional at the words of Wilfred Owen written direct from the First World War trenches, knowing he died a week before the Armistice. I can’t stand the apathy of some of the students who just cannot grasp the sheer horror of being on the front line as they have been de-sensitised by computer games that mimic warfare.
The end of World War One was 100 years ago today and so might seem beyond anything that even I should relate to. I’ve grown up with stories about my Great Grandfather, William Henry Cartledge, and his war time experiences. I regularly think of him and the things he must have seen. He was one of the ‘lucky ones’ as he came home, but the war still killed him as he suffered bad health after being mustard gassed.
I travelled to Ypres, the location of Flanders Fields, a few years ago with my cousins. We walked through the graves and looked through the books that contained the names of the young men that we lost to this war.
I think we all felt the absence of anything that commemorated those that fought and survived too. While we were in Ypres a farmer had overturned the body of a soldier whilst ploughing his field. Evidence of the horrors is still part of normal life there and they still play the last post at 11am every day.
W.H. Cartledge enlisted with the 2nd/6th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters between 11th November and 28th November 1914. He served in Ypres and in France. He took part in the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916. Private Cartledge remained with the Battalion for the remainder of the war and was de-mobbed on 3rd February 1919. He was issued with three medals in the early 1920s. The 1914 Star, War Medal and Victory Medal.
He came home and started a family but he would rarely talk of the things he had experienced. My mother recalls him rambling on his death bed of a German who was about to shoot him so he shot first and how it haunted him that a family would now not exist because of him. My Great Aunty (his daughter in law) says he told her that the first time he was to ‘go over the top’ another lad became scared and didn’t want to go so my great grandfather swapped places with him. The young lad was immediately shot as he advanced over the top. That would have been my Great Grandfather had he not done what he believed was a kind thing by swapping with his comrade. It is clear from all the old letters and documents that I have read from his time in the war that W.H. Cartledge was always looking out for his fellow soldiers and would often put himself in the firing line to save them. I’ve no doubt that despite his bravery all of these memories haunted him until the day he died. I’m also convinced that someone must have been watching over him for those four terrible years. There are many instances where a slight twist of fate would have resulted in me not being here to write this and the Cartledge family as I know it not existing.
100 years on my school is hosting a commemorative First World War evening. There will be a display on my Great Grandfather as well as students reading out some of his letters. I hope that I have done my part to remember him in the way he deserves as I am eternally grateful to him and all the others who gave up their lives to fight for our country. The legacy of my Great Grandfather is four children, eleven grandchildren, nineteen great grandchildren and thirty great, great grandchildren, with one more due any time and still counting! He has had a son, great grandson and three great, great grandsons that share his first name.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
By John McCrae