I know very little about my Grandfather Robert Shipley’s service with the 161st battalion of the Royal Artillery in the first world war. Like many of the men who served he didn’t talk about it so I have to rely on clues like things that he did, passing comments made and souvenirs which were given pride of place in the front room for the rest of his long life. He was twenty four when he went out to France, leaving a new wife and tiny baby behind. It was the only time that he went abroad, and one of the very few times that he left Yorkshire. People didn’t travel back then- especially Yorkshire farmers.
A black box with a taxidermied stoat rearing up out of dried grasses in its black box stood on the top of a chest of drawers in the back kitchen.
The last thing that he did before he went off to war was to go rabbiting with his ferret. Instead of a rabbit a stoat shot out of the rabbit hole and was caught, killed and made into a memorial. It was an unusual event which could have been a memorial of his last day as a free man if he had not come home but instead it was kept as a tribute to the fact that he returned to a long contented life in his beloved fields.
A dark, scruffy, leather bound book, almost empty, with a list of horses names and equipment hand written in the front was kept in the top drawer of the sideboard.
He worked with shire horses all his life and his job at the front was to look after the horses who pulled the field guns belonging to his battalion. He would have hated seeing the horses afraid and in dire need of better food and standing. The horse lads of his generation treated their draught horses like Ferraris, fine tuning their diet, treating their ailments and blocking up stable draughts to prevent pneumonia. The British shires didn’t stand up to the horrors of war at all well. That book, the last record book that he was given really should have been handed in but it was kept as a tribute to them.
Postcards and photographs sitting in the bottom of an old Victorian writing box with only the briefest of messages written on the back.
Baby Edie’s initial with a row of kisses next to it. An embroidered bunch of flowers, “Just a pc to let you know that I am still alive.” A description of baby Edie pulling a face as she ate a segment of orange that she had been given, a tiny moment of real life that he was told simply because it was happening there and then. My grandparents were not writers, used to expressing their feelings in words, so most of what they wanted to say had to be read between the lines.
One of the photos shows men at Fovant, a huge Wiltshire training camp for the troops, posing as they pretend to scrub planks showing that they are working hard all ready to “lick Jerry”. My grandfather is on the back row carrying a broom. They were precious scraps, kept as a reminder of the time when these fragile notes were the only contact that my grandparents- so newly in love and used to being together and working together all the time- had left at a time when they needed news of each other most.
A huge formal framed portrait of the whole battalion in uniform, kept in pride of place on the wall of the front room for the rest of his life.
This was the centre piece of the front room. There would have been no thought of moving it, ever, from the moment that it was hung. These men had fought together and died together. Those who came through unscathed as my granddad did never forgot how lucky they were and never lost their sense of gratitude and guilt about it. He visited some of those who he had served with and the local veterans came together once a year, impeccably dressed, as a mark of respect on armistice day, but this photograph was a daily reminder that as the years passed the experience of war and the men who shared it remained central to his life. Late in the war he turned down the chance to be made an sergeant, although he did the job in an acting capacity. I think that by then, having seen so much, I can guess why he did that.
A jug made from a shell case, polished gold and engraved with a field gun sitting on the top of the glass cabinet.
This was something that my granddad was very proud of and it was shown to everyone who entered the front room. He told the story that he had stolen it from a German officer. Who knows whether he had or not? If it is a story it is hard to begrudge him a little bit of romantic licence to spice up the grinding dirt, disease and danger which formed the reality of his time at the front.
I have all these things now and I treasure them along with his medals.
And from the horses mouth?
Being in the artillery was dangerous- the shells were targeted right at the gun positions- right at you in other words- but at least you were mobile. I can remember him saying once how glad he was that he was not one of the “poor sods” in the trenches.
I can remember only one anecdote. His battalion were waiting around for action, as the artillery did, and he watched a group of mouthy new recruits marching to the trenches for the first time. They were shouting about how they were going to bash Jerry and generally making their presence felt in a way that didn’t do down well with someone who had seen a fair bit of fighting. He watched as the whole lot of them were wiped out by a barrage of shells before they even had the chance to reach the front line. What sticks in my mind is the mixture of emotions as he told it. There was sadness and incomprehension at the pointlessness of it all, “They never even saw a Jerry” but there was also a part of him which felt that a bunch of idiots had got what they deserved. That’s what war does to you.