A while ago I wrote with unabashed excitement about being part of Velvet Morning Press‘s next great read: Legacy: an Anthology. For my story, I wanted to write about whether or not the deaths of my great-grandfather and two great-uncles in World War I left any trace on my family… specifically my dad, by losing his grandfather and uncle, and my mom, whose mother lost her favorite brother.
The great-grandfather who died, Samuel William Harwood, was the 45-year-old Chief Engineer on the SS Toro, a merchant navy ship criss-crossing the Atlantic until it was torpedoed. The crew were left on the casing of the U-boat to drown when it submerged. Samuel William died on his son’s 21st birthday (my grandpa Harry). He’d been torpedoed two years’ earlier, on the SS Urbino, but the crew were luckily rescued that time. His name is on a block at the Tower Bridge Memorial in London. I went and took photos for dad to see because he’s too old to get out of the house much these days.
The great-uncles both died at the age of 21 in the Somme, during the Big Pushes ordered by idiot generals, where the loss of life was staggering. Out in Picardy fields of crosses are eerie buckets of cold water to make you realize what a blood bath those Big Pushes were.
Jimmy Norwood, my maternal great-uncle, was gramma’s favorite sibling and he had already distinguished himself enough to become a corporal by the time he was blown to bits. A French farmer dug up his body in the 1950s and the dog-tags were intact but not much else.
The death of the other great-uncle, Samuel Edgar, the eldest of five boys, made the mother Ada cling to the remaining three boys (the second oldest, Frank died age 6 of scarlet fever), and kept them all near to her in Hull, Yorkshire. The three sons emigrated to Canada and the US only after Ada died in 1925.
So, when I asked my siblings, most of them reported fear of drowning. Nobody is into guns. My dad’s dad, Harry Harwood, escaped conscription being just a little too young to join WW1, but he did become a chief engineer on merchant navy ships like his dad, the late Samuel W, and spent months at sea to the extent that dad’s mum, Violet, raised her kids pretty much alone in Montreal and died early of cancer in 1949 when my dad was cycling around Europe.
But all of this didn’t make a story – or not one that I could weave – because when I went over to London to sit with my parents and chat about all of this, the conversation went thus:
Me: Any trace from their deaths, then? (slightly frustrated after asking the same question for about half an hour)
Dad: Oh, I wouldn’t say so.
(Mum goes into all that detail about the French farmer digging up his field. She’ll go from domestic tea-making to guts and gore in three seconds and 99 percent of her conversations tail off with, “Poor thing, they’re / he’s / she’s dead now.”)
Me: But, psychologically, what do you think? Don’t you think Harry had some issues since his dad died on his birthday and then he ended up away at sea for months, Dad? Dad?
Dad slurps tea and adjusts his hearing aid.
Brother: Of course, that whole war was set up by France and English. Look up the Picot Agreement. They started the whole thing to carve up Lebanon and Syria.
Me: Wasn’t it because of the Archduke of Serbia??? Off topic, John!
Brother: No, it wasn’t. And it isn’t. History is always fabricated.
Mum: Tea, anyone?
Dad: I think I’ll have one of those Shortbread biscuits…. (struggles to his feet, shuffles forward in his walker, gets biscuit, shuffles back to chair, collapses into chair)
Me: I think I’m going to write about Taupo the Cat instead for this Legacy thing….
Everyone at once: Oh my God, yes, that cat was something else! Look at my arm! The weirdest cat I ever met. I can still hear the clawing….
Mum: But poor thing, she’s d…
Me: Don’t say it!
So that’s why I ended up writing about our cat instead of World War I.