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I have heard Chris O’Reilly speak of her father during Remembrance Day Services over the past few years. Small moments spoken in remembrance of a young determined man. Please see below for the memories as shared by Chris.
My Father’s Stories, My Father’s Silence
I am too young to remember the sacrifices of Vimy Ridge or Ortona.
But memories I have;
Memories from my Irish parents of wartime;
Stories from my Mum of rations and air raid sirens that pierced the night,
Of doing without many things- even further education – because of the war.
Stories told of my Uncle Cliff who fought in Italy;
But it’s the stories that weren’t told,
at least not completely, that stay with me.
My father’s silences stay with me.
Dad was from a family of ten. Growing up first in Belfast, Northern Ireland, then to Wolverhampton, a rough industrial town in England.
Tough times. Times to make do or do without.
Dad was always a bit of a loner.
When he was 14, and the war was on,
and the call to young men to serve King and country was everywhere,
Dad went to join up.
But he was just fourteen, so someone called for his dad and he was brought home.
But he didn’t give up. He tried again.
Lied about his age, and being tall and wiry, this time he was accepted.
After that, the stories fall silent.
There were a few sepia-toned photographs of Dad – in uniform, with his brothers-in-arms, holding a puppy (being a dog lover, that was one of my favourites.)
But he never told us much about the stories behind the photographs.
My dad fought in places that aren’t remembered much – at least not on this side of the ocean.
He fought through the mud and blood and sweat and loss in North Africa, Palestine and Burma.
But his body told the story in some ways.
He’d contracted malaria in Burma; and was very, very sick.
He recovered well enough to fight on,
but every time he got a bad cold or the flu, the malaria symptoms roared back to life.
After the war, he served for a few years with the Horse Guards – the Household Cavalry, the “Blues” – those men you see in the royal processions, riding on black horses, with white pants, tall black boots, blue jackets with gold armoured vest, a brass helmet and red plumes, reins in one hand, sword in the other. I have a photograph of him in his dress uniform – so young, so much ahead of him…a message on the back to the woman who would be my mother, that someday, this photo would belong to their children.
He was right.
Life wasn’t easy for my Dad. The war took an inner toll on him…with the silences, the stories never told.
There is a chore that speaks to me of my father and his army years.
A task that keeps him alive.
You see, he taught us, my brother and I, to polish our shoes.
It was something he took pride in – polished shoes. Clean, shining shoes.
He taught us how to hold your shoes,
how to apply the polish, how to brush it in and then off,
how to use sheepskin to buff the leather until it gleamed.
I still polish my shoes.
The feel of the brushes,
the smell of the polish,
the sound of the bristles against the leather,
the shine of the shoe in my hand…
it all speaks to me of my father.
Tells the story in many ways he couldn’t.
Or perhaps wouldn’t, to spare his children the horrors of what it was really like to be a soldier.
Every Remembrance Day there’s so much I think of.
Especially in those silent moments
when I remember the silences, my father’s silences, which told their own story.
And still do.
Talking with one of my neighbours, Brenda Ferguson this evening, I found out that her father was one of our countries Hero’s of WW II. Apparently it wasn’t until after his death that the story even came to light, as seen here in this 1945 newspaper article in the Kitchener Waterloo Record.
Here is an excerpt from the article:
“Oscar was decorated for an act of supreme valour in 1942, when crossing the Atlantic. The troopship on which he was travelling, suffered a hole stove in its side, and was in danger of sinking. Oscar and two others volunteered to crawl over shattered bulkheads and attempt to stem the flow of water into the ship.
They managed to reach the hole and successfully plugged it, not knowing at what moment the ship might sink. So well done was their work that the ship was able to continue her journey. Aboard at the time were some 5000 servicemen whose lives were undoubtedly saved by the brave action of these three men.”
The Strathroy-Caradoc Museum has put together a great blog called Dear Old Girl. It is a collection of letters written by Pte Dick Armer to his wife Mabel during the first world war. A daily account of the events and emotions during the Great War. Thank you Peggy Smith for making me aware of this site. Please feel free to check out this amazing first hand account of a Private as he lovingly writes home to his Dear Old Girl.