On this day of remembrance, I honour my two grandfathers who fought in World War One. I am grateful for the sacrifices they, their brothers and their families made.
I never met my Kiwi grandfather John Gibson, who died before I was born. He volunteered to fight for the British Empire, sailing to Cairo in October 1914 with the Wellington Mounted Rifles. New Zealand army records show at least two of his brothers also joined up, and that his eldest brother Fred was killed at Messines in 1917. Gibbo, as he was known, was a good horseman, despite having had polio, and he’d already had all sorts of adventures from trying to farm in the bush in North Island to sailing around the Horn in Captain Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova.
But within months of arriving in the Middle East, he was run over by a gun trace and his leg was too damaged to be able to fight. He’d already met my grandmother Alice on a visit to Scotland, where his family originally came from. Alice sailed out to visit him in Cairo when he was injured and they were soon married. Gibbo didn’t return to New Zealand: now lame, he was re-assigned to the Royal Army Pay Corps and had postings in Shrewsbury, Egypt, Dublin, Perth and later Kent, where my father was born.
I have a few childhood memories of my other grandfather John Allan, one of nine children of a Glaswegian draper. He too joined up in the early enthusiasm for the war and spent four years in the trenches with the Highland Light Infantry. We still have two wartime photos of him: one with his mother, putting a brave face on it, and his moustachioed elder brother Sam, I imagine just as the two were off to war. John just looks so young (his even younger brother Bob was to die at Ypres in 1915).
The second photograph is from Arras in 1917, showing a group of officers from the HLI who had all won the Military Cross. He’s the young lieutenant at top left, his mouth set in a resolute line and his eyes exhausted. The citation for his Military Cross, gazetted on 17 July 1917 (brother Sam was also awarded the MC), reads: “On his own initiative, he went back through the barrage to give information to the artillery. Later, he showed a complete disregard for personal safety in his endeavour to get in touch with the flanks under heavy fire of all kinds.” The family story is that he was going back through the lines to stop the British artillery shelling his battalion. He joked about the shrapnel wounds on the backs of his legs which meant people thought he’d been running away from the fighting. No, he was trying to save his men.
John never returned to his old job as a clerk for a shipping agent in Glasgow. Instead he signed up for an imperial adventure with a bigger firm based at Port Sudan on the Suez Canal. And that was where he met my grandmother Margaret, who had travelled there on her own adventure to be matron of Port Sudan Hospital. They lived in Sudan right through World War Two, when he had a key role managing shipping through the Suez Canal, and my grandmother worked as a theatre nurse.
I think John had a happier life than Gibbo, who seemed never to settle once he left the army. In World War Two he ran a lumber camp in Scotland, crewed by volunteers from British Honduras, now Belize, who came across the Atlantic to log the trees in the cold and damp forests. I like to imagine that he understood how much they missed home.
From the bottom of my heart, I thank you.
No comments yet.