He was well into middle age before my sister and I were born. We were told to keep away when he fell into an inexplicable rage for no reason we could understand.
‘It’s shell shock,’ we were eventually told, but were none the wiser. All he said was that he was wounded in the trenches in France and transferred back to London for shrapnel to be taken out of his leg.
‘Before I became unconscious from the anaesthetic,’ he said, ‘I heard the doctor propose to the nurse on the other side of me!’ When he woke up he asked whether she had accepted. Nobody knew what he was talking about. He lived through the horror of the tranches but would never speak about it, horrified, perhaps, by the randomness of chance. He had survived. Others, some of his companions, had not.
So every year on the Sunday closest to the eleventh day of September, at the eleventh hour, bells toll and we all stand silent for two minutes with poppies in remembrance of those who died. I think of him.
For the first time ever I wore his Military Cross awarded for going into no man’s territory and carrying a man to safety. One of his platoon. He was sent on leave to Canada because he had gone there after his parents separated. When war broke out his father summoned him to sail back to defend his country. It was his duty; he obeyed. His two brothers did not and remained in Canada and then the USA. On board he was rapidly promoted through the ranks to become a major on landing – he had been a cadet officer at school! Back in London, he was sent to deliver an invitation to his mother’s friend. The door was opened by a young girl of 18 who had just finished school and was waiting for any adventure that life might hand her. There before her stood a soldier in officer’s uniform. Providence?
After the operation on his leg, he was sent on leave back to Canada. He was an officer in a Canadian regiment and, irrespective of nationality, you had to spend your leave in Canada. Rules are to be obeyed, whatever feelings you may have. Post was infrequent and unreliable – it was wartime.
Demobbed in Canada, he was penniless. How could he return to London without any money for the fare, let alone to set up a household? So he worked as a lumberjack and did odd jobs round the house. After the first meal he started to wash the dishes.
‘No need!’ he was told. ‘Just lay them separately outside the back door.’ They were licked meticulously clean by the dogs and collected the next morning by his mate. He worked and worked, saved and saved to pay his fare back to London. She was waiting for him.
Many years later I found the citation for his military cross and folded it carefully, putting it back in the lined box for his Military Cross. These were the words that I mouthed silently during the two-minute silence:
Lieutenant Maurice Bensley Thornhill: during a raid on the enemy’s trenches he gallantly led his men to their objective, blew up a mine shaft wrecking the enemy front line for a distance of 70 yards and inflicting many casualties. Later, after returning with his party, and although wounded, he went back to the enemy’s lines to look for a wounded N.C.O.
Those ‘many casualties’ haunted him all his life.