Thursday, 12 November 2009

My heroes

Yesterday was a pretty normal day on the "farm". Animals were fed, a bit of work clearing a space for all the roof slates was done, tea was cooked. Usual stuff.

As a result I completely forgot Armistice Day. The world didn't stop, gentle winds blew occasional showers across Westray, the tide rose and fell.

And I forgot my grandads.

Hubert Cinnamond and Harry Winters, being Irishmen, didn't have to join up, but they did. They fought for Britain in the First World War almost from the start, right to the finish in 1918.

The pair of them could hardly have been more different. Hubert was 6ft 4in, 17 stone of bone and muscle and straight out of a storybook. Born and bred in County Antrim from hardline Loyalist stock, he lied about his age to escape the boredom of a clerk's job in his father's bank.

With a lieutenant's pips on his shoulders he revelled in the mayhem of the trenches, twice earning the Military Cross for ludicrous heroism and finishing the war with a captaincy and a backful of shrapnel.

He then took on the IRA in the War of Independence as a member of the Auxiliary Cadets, later joined the colonial service in East Africa, organised "native" troops at the outbreak of World War II to fight the Italians before accepting a commission in the Indian Army, hoping for a chance to have a "crack at the Japs".

He died in 1970 at his retirement home in Madeira, having met his only grandson once. There's a picture of a huge man with a military moustache holding a small baby - and that's it. Me and Grandad Cinnamond.

Harry was a country boy from Mullingar in County Westmeath. War broke out not long after he had moved to Birmingham, eager to make a fresh new life for himself. He'd deliberately avoided living in Brum's Irish ghettos, doing his best to fit in. And fitting in included signing his name on the recruitment sheet.

His ability with and love of horses helped find him a place in the Royal Engineers where Private Winters did his best to survive, mending telephone lines and ferrying equipment while he watched his friends smashed to pieces or simply disappear out of the saddle without trace.

He emerged from the war a quiet, serious man, but he had met May Bews and they made a home in Dublin, had one daughter who became one of only a handful of women to earn a place at Trinity College. She graduated and left for England with her Ulsterman husband, coming back a couple of years later with Harry's little grandson.

Harry spoiled me rotten. He took me anywhere a Dublin Corporation bus went. Howth Head, Killiney beach, Phoenix Park Zoo. We fed peanuts to the elephants, walked up the Big Sugar Loaf, stood on the pavement in O'Connell Street to see George Best go by.

He visited us at our home in Ely, Cambridgeshire, one November and I recall nearly bursting with pride when my grandad marched in the front rank of the Remembrance Day parade. He died when I was nine and he never knew how much I loved him.

I never wear a poppy, although I always buy one, and I fervently support any anti-war campaign, but that doesn't mean I don't fully appreciate what soldiers are forced to do in the name of politicians' ambitions. The parade of hearses through Wootton Bassett this week was one of the saddest things I've seen in a long time.

And it made me grateful that my grandads - the swashbuckling hero of a hundred family stories and the steady, quiet, loving man with the bushy eyebrows - lived through it all.

POSTSCRIPT: Before anyone points it out, I'm aware of the role of the Auxiliary Cadets during the War of Independence. They were murdering bastards who made the Black and Tans look like an under-11 netball team. My views are completely different to my grandfather's so I feel no need to excuse or apologise.


Anonymous said...

A lovely and loving post, Malc. I feel the same about ANZAC, Armistice Days.

Lindsay said...

We live very near Wootton Bassett and news of the sad homecomings are always reported on our TV local news.

elizabethm said...

I loved reading this Malc.

Sian said...

Thanks for this Malc. Reminds me that "ordinary" people do extraordinary things. The parade to the Cenotaph in London always reduces me to tears because of just that. And the seemingly incessant corteges in Wooton Bassett are a tragic reminder of this, and makes me despair that policiticians continue to engage in such wars in which other men and women lay down their lives.

I, Like The View said...


thank you

The Birdwatcher said...

A moving post. You have expressed so eloquently what a lot of us feel. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Its always difficult to set the tone on this subject, there is often the feeling you will be shot down in flames. You carried it off beautifully.

Yorkshire Pudding said...

I wish that I knew as much about my two grandfathers as you seem to know about yours. Both of mine survived the trenches but were dead before I was born... While in Chile I read a WWI novel by Ben Elton - "The First Casualty" - a gripping read with no sign of that clever alternative comedian we all loved to hate.

Gin said...

You are a talented writer Malc! I enjoyed reading this tribute post about your grandfathers. Very well-written!

zIggI said...

wonderfully told Malc, thank you.

Malc said...

Thanks for the kind comments. I wasn't sure if this one was a bit self-indulgent. Then again, what is a blog if not a load of old self-indulgence.

And, YP, I have read Elton's The First Casualty. It was bought for me because I would never have bought it myself and I was very pleasantly surprised. I'd recommend it to anyone.