He died when I was thirteen; but none of us knew his full story, which he refused to glorify. He lied about his age to join the Army. He survived WW1, including the Battle of the Somme, and enlisted again, for WW2.
The fact that he was an Irish citizen gifted me an Irish passport, allowing me to have dual citizenship and remain a European citizen after Brexit, something deeply important to me, and to many others.
We cover the truth of the ‘Great War’ with solemn ceremony that hides us from the screaming. It’s well-intentioned. The war poets – who were there – such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, described the horror as it was.
The man in the picture came home to Dublin, then moved to Bolton, where he met my grandmother. He never talked about the war. Drink dominated much of his life, and corresponding poverty my Grandmother’s. My father and his siblings had difficult lives until they were old enough to create their own futures.
I could never judge that. I wasn’t at the Somme. I didn’t come home shaking and coughing. I didn’t sell my medals within two weeks of returning from France.
I created the above montage in Photoshop some years ago. The core photograph is real. The rest of the artefacts have been placed on the image. We spent a day at the Imperial War Museum in London, learning and photographing the objects that would have been his world, including the medals.
I wrote the poem, below, in tribute to Grandad, and also to those war poets whose stark honesty inspired my youth. Europe would emerge from the ‘world wars’ with a determination to shape a continent in shared prosperity whose values began with peace and marked an end to the glorification of war.
It didn’t happen quickly. Nothing hard ever does. Britain played a great part in that work, and our dead of both wars deserve our respect and our silence…
Thank you Grandad Tanham. And thank you to all those who were there with you, many of whom did not return from those sad trenches where human suffering reached a new low.
Within the mud, that narrow eye
Focussed further, blinking dirt
Of rifle pointed at the foe
Forgetting lice at four
Or deathly cries of left-behind
Those comrades from next door
Back in the dark tenement
Of where you took King’s shilling
A thousand days of shells and gas
And stench and blood
Ignoring bullets, the eye that did not blink
Curled light through Enfield’s barrel
To find the only thing that truly lived
Above this trench of suffering.
And in the Sun of the beginning
Found the end of war…
©Stephen Tanham 2021
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.