Submitted by Mike Haines
I have been asked to do a talk at a local dinner here in the UK, and given that it has been one hundred years since the outbreak of the Great War, each guest needs to provide some anecdotes. This has made me think about my grandfather who unfortunately died just before I was born, partly from war-related injuries. As I sit here, I am sipping a cool beer from his tankard, and I feel it appropriate to share his story. This story will form the basis of my short talk and is certainly a legacy.
My grandfather Walter joined the Royal Marines as a “Boy – 1st class” before the First World War; he was 14 or 15 years old at the time. We have pictures of him serving on great dreadnought battleships all over the world in which awnings are draped over the great guns and parties are going on beneath them, populated by local dignitaries and officers with huge mustaches.
Walter slowly rose through the ranks and became a Captain in the Royal Marine Light Infantry. In those days, it was customary for the Marines to man one turret on the big ships.
He took part in the Battle of Jutland; this was when some of the British ships vaporized under German shell fire. He served on the H.M.S Lion which took a huge battering. At least one turret was blown off the ship, and many men were hurt or killed. Fortunately, my grandfather’s turret was not blown off, but the huge battleship had to be towed backwards into harbor.
At some point he was electrocuted; he was sent to do something with the ship’s batteries, and unfortunately he had a nail in his boot and was blown across the deck and badly burned.
He partially recovered and became a Fleet revolver shooting champion. The tankard I have was presented to him for his shooting prowess. My father remembers firing massive pistols with huge recoil, possibly .45 caliber pistols, with his dad.
Along the way, Walter learned fluent German, and he was on the deck of the H.M.S Revenge at Scapa Flow after the Germans scuttled their ships at the end of the war. He had to translate the conversation between Admiral Freemantle and Admiral von Reuter when Admiral Freemantle asked Admiral von Reuter why he had scuttled the ships and admonished him for doing so. It must have been the ultimate telling off – I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that conversation.
After the war, Walter was placed on half-time pay; I rather think his injuries caught up with him, and today we might say he had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Ultimately, he reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel which is some journey all the way from Boy Sailor.
At the beginning of the Second World War, he was the civilian head of security at Holton Heath; this was the UK’s largest cordite factory. All naval shells needed cordite to propel them, so cordite was a critical product. He instigated the building of a dummy factory on the coast, and every night teams would go out to light fires and prepare canvas buildings and dummy vehicles. The Germans bombed the false site many times but not once did they hit any critical areas. During the war, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for this work.
After the war he was very ill. I think the periods of intense stress, the injury he had, the work he had done, and the things he had seen at Jutland affected him, and he began to slowly decline. He lived for about fifteen years more but wasn’t ever a well man. He had his study, which nobody was allowed to enter without his permission, and was truly an old-fashioned English gentleman.
So, as I sip my beer from his tankard, I reflect, would I, could I, have emulated the life he led? Would I be as brave? I never met him, but I would like to have. I think that out of all my family members everything I have heard about him makes me feel an enduring bond with him.
His grave became “lost” for a time as family members passed on, but my wife and I finally located it and occasionally we go and tend to it. I am sure we are the only ones who do so, but his legacy remains.
Please check out Pulitzer Prize winning author Robert Massie‘s books Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea and Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War
Interested in learning more about the war? The History Channel has many videos about World War I here, PBS’s eight-part series “The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century” is presented in depth on their website, the Wall Street Journal presents an interesting assortment of one hundred legacies of the Great War that continue to shape our lives, and “Photos of the Great War” provides a pictorial presentation of the Great War