LEST WE FORGET : A GUEST POSTING

WRITTEN by DREW

For
Cpl Andrew Wingate
Pvt James Little

When JC texted me to ask if I would do my usual post for Remembrance Day here as my place has been mothballed for some time and the foreseeable, I first responded that I didn’t think there was any point as for the 11 years across the Kitchen Table I only posted the two names above, a pertinent picture and the most depressing song I could find just to dampen anybody’s spirits who hadn’t already learned the lesson of looking at my blog on that date.

But then I thought about it and it occurred to me that it might be good to go into a bit of depth about those two names and why on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month I stop whatever I am doing and spend 10 minutes or so remembering their faces, their voices and the influence that they had in shaping my views and outlook to life. I must add that it is not the only time that I think about these two men, they pop into my thoughts often.

It may not be of any interest to anyone but here we go.

Andrew Wingate was born on the 2nd of May 1892, the same day that his son was born some 45 years later and incidentally the date that his first grandson was due to be born a further thirty years into the future but decided to appear a week early just to mix things up a bit. Andrew, or Grandfaither as I called him enlisted when war broke out, joined the Cavalry and went to France with the rest of the Old Contemptibles. He saw action at the first Battle of the Somme and various other locations throughout the trenches of France and Belgium including Passchendale. You may have worked out that Auld Andra’ survived the whole hellish waste of human & animal life, French villages and countryside. When I asked him many years later how he had made it through he said gruffly, “just luck son, just luck” and apart from telling me “I never saw any cowards in France, many scared boys but no cowards” that was the only thing he ever said to me about World War One and I didn’t press him on it as I got a feeling that it was something he did not want to discuss. He did read my history textbook on the subject, that I had left lying about the living room hoping that it would prompt a discussion but he offered up no opinion on it.

When he was demobbed from the army, Andra joined the Navy and was set for a life on the ocean wave until he fell on a ship and broke his back., the prognosis of which was not good, he was told he would never walk again, to which according to the accounts of my father he said is that right and through a lot of pain and determination eventually did; and when he did, like a lot of men in Lanarkshire he spent the rest of his working life in the now long gone steel works, the main employers in the area.

By the time I became aware of him, he was into his 80s, a large imposing figure of a man always in a shirt and waistcoat with his pocket watch and chain and the shiniest shoes I have ever seen.  A man of not many words who would come and stay with us three or four times a year always carrying this Adidas holdall containing a dark wooden box. That turned out to be his WW1 footlocker and contained all of the important things in his life, his letters from my Gran and from lots of ladies who wrote to him during the war, well before Flora came on the scene I must add. Also his demob papers, other essential documents, 5 gold sovereigns (one each for my dad, his sister, me, my brother and my mother), three pocket watches, his medals, whole sets of Woodbine cigarette cards and lots of other things including a small piece of solid gold that an uncle had sent back from the Klondike. I found out what was in the box along with my brother when he sat us down the day before he was going home on his final stay with us. He went through the contents, telling us about various pieces and who was to get what when he was gone. Two months later he died, he was 93 years old. My dad said that he had just had enough, all his friends and peers already having departed this existence.

What I believe I inherited from Andra was a sense of justice and whatever morality that I have, passed down from him, through my father to me and most probably my gruffness, those that know me would never describe me as “a ray of sunshine” That final summer I was shelf stacking in Templetons and one night decided to liberate a couple of boxes of Matchmakers which my mother found leading to all hell breaking loose in our house. I was affronted that my grandfather was there to witness this, finding it very difficult to look him in the eye. Years later my mother told me that he had spoke to her that evening and said “ don’t be too hard on the boy, he’s a good one and I think he has learned his lesson”.

James Little was born in Hamilton on the 2nd December 1925 and did not have the easiest start in life. Three weeks after he was born he was left on auld Jimmy’s doorstep with a note stating that Jimmy was indeed the father and would have to look after his son, a fact Jimmy didn’t learn until he needed his birth certificate to marry my Aunt Betty, noticed the crude attempt at alteration, confronted “the auld man” who spilt the beans. All of the resentment and unkindness of the woman he thought of as his mother now fell into place. Jimmy once said that she didn’t know he was away to war until quite a few months after he had gone and it did not worry her in the slightest. He lied about his age, forged the papers (like father like son) and so he found himself in Burma at the beginning of 1943, seventeen with a distinct dislike of authority. From all of my time spent talking to him about the war, as unlike Andrew Wingate, he talked about it, not in any glorified way but with disdain and a bit of regret, I get the impression that he fought a war on two fronts, one naturally enough against the Japanese but an equally fierce one with the officer classes of his own side, often finding himself on a charge and punishment and the main reason I suspect he remained a private. He also survived his conflict, unscathed or so he thought, he had respiratory problems from then on requiring the removal of a lung in the 1950s which did not hinder him in trying to smoke himself to death with 40 Benson and Hedges a day. Once the war was over and before he was demobbed he found himself a little side job liberating Burma of some of its Jade and also becoming something of a star in the regiment’s boxing team.

When he eventually came home, he met my mother’s eldest sister, started courting her and not long after they were married, a few years later finding themselves bringing up my mother after her father’s death when she was eight, her mother had died the previous year. Like my grandfather Jimmy went into the steel works, where he put his wits to good use becoming a union rep, then shop steward, making appearances at the TUC Conference and an article in the Hamilton Advertiser after one speech on the podium hinting at a prospective political career and prior to his retiring ending up foundry supervisor in the Clyde Alloy.

Jimmy became a huge influence on me, from the early days when he used to phone up kidding on he was John Wayne at Christmas and on birthdays to giving me Animal Farm and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at the age of 13 to read then discussing the books with me after I had finished reading them. He was also the only member of my family who attended when I had to, in my capacity as Chair of the Lanark Youth CND speak with Bruce Kent and our local MP at the time Dame Judith Hart at an open meeting in Lanark Memorial Hall on the horror of the Trident missile system which was in the process of being deployed. Ironic that the man who would most certainly have died had the Americans not dropped the atom bombs on Japan went to support me but that was him.  I remember asking him where his medals were and he said that they were of no importance to him, he did his bit, not so much for the cause but to get away from his “mother” and that it was over. He also told me that the most dangerous thing in the world was “an officer with a compass and a cultivated sense of entitlement”.

Jimmy had his retirement worked out to the day, when it would be most beneficial for him to retire on his pension from British Steel and when they refused his application for early retirement he told them he was going to “The Record” (Daily Record), to kick up a stink about how they wouldn’t let a clapped out old man go but were prepared to pay off younger men who needed the job. Needless to say he got his retirement but Betty and Jimmy didn’t get very long to enjoy it, as on 9th December 1989 taking his neighbour to a hospital appointment he had a heart attack and died 300 yards from the entrance to Law Hospital.

So for these two men and for their cousins, friends and comrades, the ones not fortunate enough to survive, every Armistice day I stop and remember. Everybody says that we should remember the fallen and yes we should do but we should also remember the ones that came back, most of whom would have been damaged by their experiences in ways we cannot comprehend but were able to keep on functioning, get married, have families and help rebuild this country, twice. I was never one for the poppy, in my youth it didn’t sit comfortably with my ideological pacifism, the white one also always felt wrong but I still took notice of the 11th November. I have always made a donation and bought one but never felt I needed to wear it to show my respect. However I do not sneer at those that do as most do it for the right reasons and I will leave that there, I could go on about the high-jacking of the act of Remembrance but that discussion is for another day.

So here is possibly the best song written about WW1.

mp3: Eric Bogle – No Man’s Land (live)

I once saw Eric Bogle live, in a community hall in Biggar on one of his infrequent returns to these shores and he put us through the emotional ringer but by god was it good.

mp3: Eric Bogle – spoken introduction to No Man’s Land

JC

9 thoughts on “LEST WE FORGET : A GUEST POSTING

  1. Like many of their peers “ordinary” yet remarkable men who survived some of the worse atrocities imaginable.
    A brilliant post and a brilliant song Drew. I have a personal attachment to The Men They Couldn’t Hang version.

  2. A really interesting read. Zero triumphalism and I also very
    much appreciated the mention of the animal life also lost in
    war. Glad JC asked you to write this, and that you obliged.

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