I wish I could tell you more about who William the soldier was. Very few details about my grandfather’s time in the army are known by me or the family. Why? Because he very rarely talked about it.
In fact, I don’t recall ever speaking to Gramps in any fine detail about the war until after his retirement. He found it very difficult and there were only certain aspects he was willing or able to talk about. It was only when he began writing that he began to open up about his experiences.
He kept no personal mementos from the war or Palestine. There are only a few pictures, probably captured on a box brownie, and then dating from after the war ended.
So what do we know about William the soldier?
We know that he signed up at the tender age of 17, leaving a job in a factory in Harrow in order to join the fight against fascism. We also know that he took up the offer of joining the newly formed parachute regiment for no other reason than they were offering a few extra bob a week in pay. We know he undertook his training at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.
He was only 18 years old when, 70 years ago this week, Private William Edward Thomas, along with thousands of his comrades, was dropped from a plane into a field on the outskirts of the Dutch village of Oosterbeek, and took part in a ferocious battle over the next 10 days to secure the strategically important bridge over the Rhine. It was a battle which was to have a profound effect on the teenager (strange to think he was only half my age now when he was there).
As so many others did, he made some deep and lasting friendships whilst he was in the army. Whilst many undoubtedly never returned from the fighting (or returned to the regiment later, having been captured and taken prisoner) they were all remembered fondly for a long time after.
Once William began to open up, most stories and anecdotes involved those friends. One in particular, Wally Callis, seemed very important to him. Even as the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease took hold, memories of Wally and their escapades would come back, together with the disappointment that they eventually lost touch (Wally emigrated shortly after leaving the army). By all accounts, it seemed that Wally and William – or Bill as most people seemed to call him – were an inseparable pair. Was it their double act that inspired the piano playing duo, “the Twins”, featured in Pegasus Falling? Gramps was an accomplished, if amateur, piano player, and I can just imagine the two of them entertaining their fellow troops in raucous revelry in the mess.
It was in the army that William took up boxing, which he claims to have been very good at. I’d love to know if he was! He had the right build for it, and he maintained an interest in the sport throughout his life, something which surprised me, as he was a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist. But there was something about the art of boxing, the controlled aggression perhaps, which fascinated him.
There are so many things about William the soldier that remain unknown, though. His exact role at Arnhem is unclear, although his recalling of events in his fiction shows that he was intimately involved on the front line. I’m not sure when or if he ever progressed to a higher rank than Private. We have no medals or uniform to give us a clue. How did he get back to the UK after fighting in Arnhem? Was he one of the many who were evacuated after the operation failed?
What is clear is that his experiences left a heavy toll on him. He may have gotten through his time in the army physically unharmed, but Arnhem, and indeed Palestine, left him mentally scarred. He had signed up to fight because he felt morally obliged to do so, but he left the army with the unwavering attitude that war is wrong, and must be avoided at all costs.
He did not feel proud of what he did in battle. The very fact that his medals and uniform disappeared, and that he did not open up about his experiences for several decades afterwards, tell you a lot. When ever the subject of the war came up, his very strong opinions would be aired. What happened was necessary, given the circumstances. What he was asked to do had to be done. But it was wrong, very wrong, and the circumstances which lead to him having to undertake such tasks should never have presented themselves in the first place. Not only that, but he did all he could to champion peace and prosperity for the rest of his life.
He may not have been proud of his actions as a soldier, but one thing is clear. He had utmost respect for his fellow soldiers on the front line on both sides of the conflict. And that respect is clear to see in his writing. His characters live and breathe the same conflict he lived through himself. They take orders, they fight, they banter, they suffer, they laugh, they fall in love, just as he did out there. He may pull no punches in his criticism of those in charge, but there is no doubting the empathy with his fellow fighters who had to live with the consequences of the decisions that had been made above their heads.
A lot of the gaps in our knowledge of Gramps’ time out there could possibly be filled by reading his books. Undoubtedly, much of what happens in The Bridge and Pegasus Falling is based on his own experiences, and I am so glad he left us these stories as they give us some clue about what he lived through.
I only realised just how little I know about William the soldier when it was too late to start asking questions. Just as he was willing to start talking, Alzheimer’s began to eat away at his memories and the disease took away my opportunity to ask him more.
But I hope that all is not lost. Once I have published the last part of the Cypress Branches trilogy, I’ll turn my attention to finding out more about Gramps’ time in the army. I’m sure there are records I can look at, and maybe one or two internet forums may come in handy. It would be great to one day write another blog post in the not too distant future filling in some of those gaps.