My only living link with the First World War was my maternal step-grandfather, James Aloysius Kelly, a diminutive house painter who maintained his good nature despite advancing age and dedicated drinking. I wish I had paid better attention as a child, as only two of Kelly’s war stories survive in memory. In one, he described a restaurant near the Army base where he underwent basic training in 1917. In the window hung a sign: “No Dogs or Irish.” The other is set in France. His unit had pitched camp in a beet field, where Kelly and other doughboys staged a beet fight. No recollections of combat, as with my father in the next war.
More than nine million died in four years, exceeding five-thousand five-hundred for every day of the war, an unprecedented slaughter exceeded two decades later. On Tuesday I asked three of my fifth-grade reading students what Veterans Day was about. “Soldiers,” one said. Had they ever heard of Armistice Day? No recognition. What about Verdun, the Marne and the Somme? Who fought whom? Nothing, as though the Great War had never happened.
As a private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the Welsh poet and artist David Jones served on the Western Front from December 1915 to March 1918. In Part 7 of In Parenthesis he writes:
“The memory lets escape what is over and above---
as spilled bitterness, unmeasured, poured-out,
and again drenched down---demoniac-pouring:
who grins who pours to fill flood and super-flow insensately,
pint-pot---from milliard-quart measure.”
Another of Kelly’s war stories comes to me: “Ypres” he pronounced “YIP-pers.”