Thursday, 18 March 2010

An Unwilling Passenger - One' Man's Story of the Great War


A nice thank you note from Ian Hislop, along with the return of my great-uncle's book, which he has been reading 'Unwilling Passenger' Arthur Osburn's account of the First World War from the opening shots to the end.

Many readers will be familiar with Hislop's documentaries on the Great War and so I'm delighted he enjoyed this particular story: It's been out of print for years now and you may recall me writing that I managed to track down a copy in the United States on the internet via Abe's Book's. My thanks to Michael Child for pointing me in the right direction!

Here's a small excerpt:

"Quite a young girl. Without any stupid false shame, she coolly kept her thumb pressed on bleeding arteries whilst I got wads of gauze and tourniquets ready. Several times she went through the village to bring me warm water from a cottage and I thought that each time she would be killed. Later that day, she was killed. I found her body that afternoon when we recaptured the far end of the village. It was outside a cottage in a narrow street eastward of the chateau, with the garden that stood in the centre of the village. Poor girl, she had been simply riddled with shrapnel bullets, perhaps our own! Two or three other women and some children were lying there dead but whether killed by our fire or the Germans it was impossible to say. It was nearly always the women and children we found, the young men having already been called-up and the older, generally fleeing to avoid being made prisoners."

I included this excerpt, rather than some of the vivid recollections of events such as the fighting retreat from Mons because in many ways it best illustrated the dreadful futility and waste of war. The teenage girl was a heroine of the first order and yet nobody will ever know of her personal sacrifice in helping to save our wounded men, outside the pages of an English officer's book, now almost 100 years ago.

It's a curious coincidence that my Great Grandfather who originally volunteered, much like the great novelist, Ernest Hemingway, for the Belgian ambulance service, was also a war photographer for the Illustrated London News. He lived here in Westgate and the two men never knew each other. I still have his Kodak camera, marked 'Illustrated London News' on the shelf opposite my desk and in perfect condition too.