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Why they went to war

The Hay Festival Kells gets under way next week and features, with the year that’s in it, a number of First World War-themed lectures. On Thursday (July 3rd) Myles Dungan talks on “Lions, Donkeys and Paddies: The Irish Experience of the Great War” while John O’Keeffe’s lecture on the same day is entitled “Moral Insanity and the Great War: Bad Men in Good Jobs”. O’Keeffe, a psychologist and criminologist, asks if Douglas Haig, David Lloyd George and the Kaiser were psychopaths. Ciaran Wallace deals with the home front, Turtle Bunbury focuses on a number of Irish personalities who featured in the war and Danny Cusack talks about Francis Ledwidge, Meath and the Great War. Ledwidge was killed at Passchendaele while serving in the British army in July 1917. On Thursday evening, Myles Dungan introduces a performance of songs from the war.

Friday afternoon sees a talk from Jeremy Paxman at the Headfort Arms Hotel in Kells. “Traditional images reinforce the view that the Great War was a pointless waste of life. So why did the nation fight so willingly and endure suffering for so long?” Paxman asks. A worthwhile question, but perhaps, by reference to a striking piece of oral history collected almost fifty years ago when many survivors of the war were still alive, we may unrhetoricise it.

Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village, by Ronald Blythe, was written in 1966-7 and published in 1969. It is a lightly fictionalised account of the life of a Suffolk village in the present and in the past (within living memory for the most part), a life that in the 1960s was disappearing and now has disappeared, with old fields, hedgerows and farm buildings buried under vast fields of waving corn. Akenfield (field of oaks) cannot be found on the map; the book’s topographical description is largely based on the village of Charsfield, northeast of Ipswich, a place with which the author was familiar. Blythe, by the way, did not claim to be an oral historian, “a profession I had never heard of when I wrote it”. He thought his book was more the work of a poet: “My only real credentials for having written it was that I was native to its situation in every way and had only to listen to hear my own world talking. Thus a thread of autobiography runs strongly through it.” Oral history it may or may not be – I’ll go for may – but from a literary point of view Akenfield is a masterpiece.

The words that follow are those of Leonard Thompson, a farmworker, aged seventy-one.

There were ten of us in the family and as my father was a farm labourer earning 13s. a week you can just imagine how we lived. I will tell you the first thing that I remember. It was when I was three – about 1899. We were all sitting round the fire waiting for my soldier brother to come home – he was the eldest boy in the family ... This young man came in, and it was the first time I had seen him. He wore a red coat and looked very lively. Mother got up and kissed him but Father just sat and said, ‘How are you?’ Then we had tea, all of us staring at my brother. It was dark, it was the winter-time. A few days later he walked away and my mother stood right out in the middle of the road, watching. He was going to fight in South Africa. He walked smartly down the lane until his red coat was no bigger than a poppy. Then the tree hid him. We never saw him again. He went all through the war but caught enteric fever afterwards and died. He was twenty-one ...

Our food was apples, potatoes, swedes and bread, and we drank our tea without milk or sugar. Skim milk could be bought from the farm but it was thought a luxury. Nobody could get enough to eat no matter how they tried. Two of my brothers went out to work. One was eight years old and he got 3s. a week, the other got about 7s. ...

Our parents and all the cottage people were very religious and very patriotic. The patriotic songs and the church hymns seemed equally holy. They took our breath away. The boys marched through the village singing ... and their faces would look sincere and important. It was all ‘my country’ – country, country, country. You heard nothing else. There was no music in the village then except at the chapel or the church and our family liked it so much that we hurried from one to the other to hear all we could. People like us, who went where we fancied on a Sunday, were called ‘Devil-dodgers’ ... People believed in religion then, which I think was a good thing because if they hadn’t got religion there would have been a revolution. Nobody would have stuck it. Religion disciplined us and gave us the strength to put up with things. The parson was very respected. He could do what he liked with us when he felt like it. One day he came to our house and told my eldest sister, who was eleven, to leave school. ‘I think you needn’t finish,’ he said. ‘You can go and be maid to old Mrs Barney Wickes, now she has lost her husband.’ Mrs Barney Wickes was blind and my sister was paid a penny a day out of Parish Relief to look after her ...

The school was useless. The farmers came and took boys away from it when they felt like it, the parson raided it for servants. The teacher was a respectable woman who did her best. Sometimes she would bring the Daily Graphic down and show us the news. I looked forward to leaving school so that I could get educated. I knew that education was in books, not in school: there were no books there. I was a child when I left but I already knew that our ‘learning’ was rubbish, that our food was rubbish and that I should end as rubbish if I didn’t look out ...

The farmer was a dealer. I stayed with him a year and four months and was paid 4s.6d. a week. And then I got into a hell of a row. I’d driven a flock of sheep from Ipswich and the next morning they found that one had died. The farmer was in a terrible stew. He ran down the field and met my mother on her way to chapel and told her all about it. I had driven the sheep too hard, he said. ‘And you drive boys too hard!’ said my mother – she had no fear at all. Well, the truth of the matter is that she said a lot of things she’d only thought until then, and so I left the farm. It must seem that there was war between farmers and their men in those days. I think there was, particularly in Suffolk. These employers were famous for their meanness. They took all they could from the men and boys who worked their land. They bought their lives’ strength for as little as they could. They wore us out without a thought because, with the big families, there was a continuous supply of labour. Fourteen young men left the village in 1909 – 11 to join the army. There wasn’t a recruiting drive, they just escaped ...

I returned to my old farm at Akenfield for 11s. a week, but I was unsettled. When the farmer stopped my pay because it was raining and we couldn’t thrash, I said to my seventeen-year-old mate, ‘Bugger him. We’ll go off and join the army.’ ... We walked to Ipswich and got the train to Colchester. We were soaked to the skin but very happy. At the barracks we kissed the Bible and were given a shilling ...

In my four months’ training with the regiment I put on nearly a stone in weight and got a bit taller. They said it was the food but it was really because for the first time in my life there had been no strenuous work. I want to say this simply as a fact, that village people in Suffolk in my day were worked to death. It literally happened. It is not a figure of speech ...

We were all delighted when war broke out on August 4th. I was now a machine-gunner in the Third Essex Regiment. A lot of boys from the village were with me and although we were all sleeping in ditches at Harwich, wrapped in our greatcoats, we were bursting with happiness. We were all damned glad to have got off the farms ...

We arrived at the Dardanelles and saw the guns flashing and heard the rifle-fire. They heaved our ship, the River Clyde, right up to the shore. They had cut a hole in it and made a little pier, so we were able to walk straight off and on to the beach. We all sat there – on the Hellespont! – waiting for it to get light. The first things we saw were big wrecked Turkish guns, the second a big marquee. It didn’t make me think of the military but of the village fêtes. Other people must have thought like this because I remember how we all rushed up to it, like boys getting into a circus, and then found it all laced up. We unlaced it and rushed in. It was full of corpses. Dead Englishmen, lines and lines of them, and with their eyes wide open. We all stopped talking. I’d never seen a dead man before and here I was looking at two or three hundred of them. It was our first fear. Nobody had mentioned this. I was very shocked. I thought of Suffolk and it seemed a happy place for the first time.

Akenfield is published in the Penguin Modern Classics series at £9.99.

28/06/2014