First published in Carlisle Living July 2016
Carlisle Living July 2016
When my granny died in 1996, we inherited a box of family photographs. There are snaps of my mum, my aunt and uncles and endless pictures of Jock, my granny’s Cairn terrier. To be honest, here’s more pictures of Jock than all the children and grandchildren put together: Jock camping, Jock staring haughtily in the opposite direction on the passenger seat of my granda’s van, Jock sitting with his ears blowing inside out on a river bank, Jock with my granny and her wee tartan shopping trolley on the Great Western Road.
But among the photos of kids and dogs and anonymous weddings, there are postcards from the First World War. One has a picture of a little boy and girl standing in the shadow of a grandfather clock. The caption reads ‘only time will tell’. On the back there’s a message written in a scrawling unpractised hand. It’s from my great-grandfather, William Sweeney, my granny’s father. It begins ‘Dear Wife,’ and goes on to tell her that he’s arrived safely in London. The postmark is dated May 1915.
I’d always known that my great-granddad had died in the First World War, although nobody seemed to know the details. The few times I’d spoken to my granny about him, she’d been vague. Not surprising: she was four when he joined up. Still, she had memories of him at home on leave; his watch hanging on the iron bedstead and another occasion where he’d chased her round the kitchen with his bayonet in a moment of boisterous – if inappropriate – high spirits. In hospital just before she died, withered by long illness and dementia I found my gran in tears. When I asked why she was crying, she told me that she was waiting for her da, but she thought he’d gone. She may have been an old lady in a hospital ward, but in her head she was eighty years away, still missing the man who left and never came back.
After she died, I tried to put the pieces of my great-grandfather’s life together. I already knew that Will Sweeney had been born in Ireland and around the turn of the century he’d left home to work in Scotland. My mum has his marriage certificate which tells us he worked as a labourer at the Saracen foundry in Glasgow. He married my great grandmother – Elizabeth McLaughlin, a cotton reeler – in St Aloysius church on New Year’s Eve 1908. Between 1909 and 1914 they had five children, one of whom died in infancy. What puzzles me is this: if Will had joined up in 1915, it was as volunteer. Conscription wasn’t introduced until 1916 and even then, not, at first, for married men and certainly not for Irishmen. He had many valid reasons not to fight, but he chose to go all the same.
There’s a second postcard in the box of photos. It’s from Will’s sister, Margaret. On the front there’s a picture of Lismore Laundry in County Waterford. Some amateur philatelist has torn off the stamp – and with it the postmark – so it’s impossible to date. Addressed to ‘Lizzie’ – my-great grandmother – Margaret’s message is almost poetic in its poignancy; ‘(have) you heard from Will lately as I did not get a letter from him this good while and we are very uneasy about him’. She sends her love to the children and urges Lizzie to pass on any news by return of post.
Of course, you know what’s coming next. The Armed Forces are nothing if not organised. It took me about two minutes on the War Graves Commission website to learn Will’s fate. He was lost in action on 3rd September 1916 at The Somme. He was thirty. His name is on Face 10A at the Thiepval Memorial in France.
The Battle of the Somme began a hundred years ago on 1st July; it ended on 18th November 1916. William Sweeney was one of 420 000 British casualties. That’s almost the entire population of Cumbria wiped out in the space of four months.
For me, The Somme is as distant as the Armada, an iconic historical event that belongs to another world, and although the presence of my granny’s long-lost father brings it closer, there are details I still can’t comprehend. What would make a man leave all his children to fight such a war? Did he regret it once he got there? Was he frightened? Did he think he’d ever go home? What did he tell his wife and sister in his letters? What were they thinking letting all those young men die?
There’s another postcard in the box and it might be a picture of Will. He’s small and sinewy in a Black Watch kilt and he’s looking sideways out of familiar mischievous eyes; there’s a glimmer of a smile on his face. I can’t be sure it’s him – but I’d like to think it is. He looks like the kind of man who’d chase his small daughter round the kitchen with a bayonet – just for a laugh.