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Boredom, bungles and dodging death: Charles Lander on the Western Front

A destroyed German trench on the Messines Ridge, 1917. More people died in the battlefields around Ypres than were killed by the atomic bomb. Photo: National Library of Scotland.

What was is like to fight in the First World War? It is a question no living person can answer, but we have inherited many stories from the dead.

My Great Grandfather, Charles Lander, kept a diary of his active service. It is a glimpse of the life of a fairly junior officer in a most extraordinary war. There are heroics and horrors – but he also chose to record some of the boredom, the bungles, the friends he made and lost, and perhaps most strikingly, vivid personal reflections on his own mistakes.

Initially rejected from the army because he was too skinny, Charles, a member of the Officers Training Corps at university, left Birmingham for the Army in 1914. He received a year of training before leaving for France in April 1916 where he was to fight in ‘Kitchener’s Army’, the masses of young men of largely ordinary professions who ‘answered the call’. He was proud, yes. But also nervous.

He is courting his fiancee Doris when he is given his orders. At home one weekend on leave he recalls feeling “very peaceful and very much in love” when “a telegram arrived giving us orders to proceed overseas. I must confess that rather a lump developed in my throat and all sorts of fears ran through my mind of what the future had in store for me; whether this was to be my last afternoon in the old house. Fortunately H. Allenby dropped in for tea and sentimentalities were forgotten. The morning came and I said goodbye.” Continue reading

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“I began to feel a little bit shaky”: Charles Lander in the Somme, 100 years ago

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Paul Nash: ‘We Are Making a New World’ (IWM)

100 years ago today began the Battle of the Somme. Few episodes in human history are remembered with such a grand sense of supreme awfulness. But with this grandeur comes distance and incomprehension. As time passes the gulf widens: we need personal stories to bridge it.

My Great Grandfather, Charles Lander, fought in the Somme and recorded his memories in a diary which spanned the whole of the First World War.

A member of the Officer Training Corps when war was declared, Charles would spend 20 months in training before leaving for the Western Front as a junior officer in the British Army.

When he finally did arrive in France in the Spring of 1916 his diary entries are brimming with a sense of fascination and adventure. But as the days go by these stories are increasingly peppered with references to “the coming offensive”. Lengthly preparations are made. He writes, “we handed to the quartermaster letter for home: last letters, which he understood were only to be posted if we were killed.”

It’s 9.30pm on 4th July 1916, and after what must have been an agonising four days in waiting, Charles was given his first order to enter battle. Continue reading

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Hope as Resistance: 16 Pictures of Dissent to World War One

The last surviving British veteran of the First World War, Harry Patch, died in 2009.  With him dies the collective memory of a generation that fought, resisted, endured and dreamed.

Living memory is a powerful thing.  It can assert itself in ways the dead cannot.  Patch himself met Tony Blair.   He told him “war is organised murder” (1).

Now he sleeps, the experience of his generation are up for grabs: a quote for a statue, an artefact for a museum, a sound-bite for a speech.  With their voices gone, our leaders are free to resurrect the same old lie: it is sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country.

Yet we can all be custodians of their memory and we can all reclaim history.  When the Government announced a year of “celebrations” to mark the start of the First World War, some of us started a radical history project to uncover more about the War to End All Wars.  Here is a picture of what we have found so far.

Britain’s entry to the First World War was opposed by many, including the then Labour Party under Keir Hardie, pictured here speaking in Trafalgar Square, 2 August, the day before Germany declared war on France. Image: Magnoliabox. Continue reading

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