(first published GQ magazine July 1996)
In 1940, as an infantry private in the German army, my father invaded France. Four years later, as an officer in the Free Polish Army, he invaded France again. In the years between, he also got to invade Russia, march into Belgium (twice), advance into Holland, and fight with the German Afrika Korps in Tunisia. He was fit, tough, prepared.
Fifty years on he’s sitting in the room next door. I know because I can hear him. He suffers from Parkinson’s disease and with an annoying repetition his hand taps the arm of his chair, or rustles his clothes, or rattles anything he’s holding. The noise, and the helplessness of it, sometimes drives me mad. It nearly always drives him insane.
“I feel like a wanking dog,” he once said to me. Which is a sad thing for a son to hear his white-haired father say.
Life allotted dad a space in the ranks of the German army, because he was born 79 years ago, of Polish parents, in Kirchlinde, a small town in the industrial heartland of the German Ruhr. Though German inhabitants, the family lived in a Polish community, and at home and to friends and to God, Polish was spoken. Dad calls Polish his “mother tongue” and says, because of it, “I am Polish”.
Once, I said to him that if was born in Germany, educated in Germany, first worked in Germany, and first went to war as a German soldier, then that made him German. “Face it, dad,” I said, “You’re a Kraut.” He replied: “If a cow is born in a stable, it does not make it a horse.” He had me on that one.
In The late Fifties and throughout the Sixties, we lived on a Swindon council estate, in the red brick house that I was born in. Dad made a living selling Betterwear household cleaning products from a suitcase, and held things together spiritually by being a devout and proselytising Jehovah’s Witness. He did both door to door.
In the school playground at the time, along with my fellow under-tens, I sung “We won the war in 1964” (because it rhymed) and played at World War Two with sticks and stones and water-filled washing-up liquid bottles. Most of the other kids had plastic toy guns, Johnny Sevens if they were lucky, but as a young Jehovah’s Witness dad never allowed me to play with replicas of things that killed people, so none were ever bought for me. But still, we acted out “Best Death”, which involved charging at a pretend German bunker to get pretend killed by pretend weapons for marks out of ten.
How much any of us knew about the war we played at, I’m not sure. I’m not even certain when it was that I discovered exactly my own father’s role in it. I think quite early on that I knew about his time in the Free Polish Army, when he was on our side, the good side, but it wasn’t until much later that I learnt about the times when he stood under Swastikas with his fellow baddies.
We only knew a black-and-white war. Right and wrong. Good and evil. There were no grey areas depicted on the bubble-gum cards we swapped, no moral dilemmas contemplated by the soldiers who fought battles on our families rented black and white televisions. Even our action men couldn’t talk and were years away from having real hair. It also happened a long, long time ago.
Dad’s back to being a Catholic, and the times I played out his war in short trousers, in and around the bushes at the end of our street, start to feel like they never happened. Maybe it’s because I now have memories of a real war.
My war was in the Falklands in 1982; it was 37 years and 8,000 miles away from dad’s one. Before I sailed, he travelled through the night to see me. When he reached my camp in Aldershot, what he said surprised me. “If the Argentines are anything like the Italians I knew when I was in the Afrika Korps, you have nothing to worry about, son.” I’d never heard my father say anything so macho before. Certainly not about war.
In the end, he was right. The Argentine army was pretty much like his Italian one and in those early days, in victory, we were the boys: “British Parachute Regiment mate. God bless Maggie and don’t fuck with us.” Also, my war lasted only three weeks.
“Three weeks!” Dad once teased. “I spent more time clipping my toe nails in my war”. “Yeah,” I replied, “but how many times did your batteries run out on your Walkman?” My turn to have him.
The first dead thing I saw in the Falklands was a horse, lying in a field on our approach to Goose Green. It was about an hour so before I saw my first dead man, the horse had been killed, I guessed, by artillery fire. When I got close to it, I stopped, looked down, thought “fuck” at what shrapnel can do to flesh, and then had a memory of my dad.
He was sitting in his chair, I was standing next to him, and together we were flicking through an old album of small black-and-white photographs. I remembered that one of them captured a pile of dead horses that had lain rotting on a battlefield in France. The photograph had been taken by my dad during World War Two.
I didn’t carry a camera in the Falklands, though I’ve wished many times since that I had. I could have taken a picture of my dead horse and put it next to dad’s one with a caption reading: “Things don’t change much, do they?”
Though I wonder how much our memories have changed us. It’s now nearly 13 years since the Falklands, and I’m a twenty plus a day, 36 year old. I look out of my window and see trees and fields in Cornwall.
When it was 13 years on for dad he would have been 42 and looking out on to that council estate in Swindon. There would have been a wife and 3 children in the kitchen next door, a suitcase of samples in the hall, a bible on the table. So much to look back on.
And not only the war. His childhood had passed through the great German depression. Times when wheelbarrow quantities of money couldn’t buy you a pea. Times when his mother and father didn’t eat so that he and his sisters could.
The early hunger left it’s mark as much as any later shell did. So much so that I’ve never once seen my dad throw food in the bin, and even today he maintains a level of respect for potatoes like only true Eastern Europeans and the Irish can. He still has a small plot of potatoes out in the back garden and it gives him great pleasure to harvest them. He holds them up, smiles, and then builds a memory around them. Like when he was in a trench on the Russian front and saw a potato sticking out of the earth a few yards from his trench.
I’ve heard this one before, so I say: “I know dad. You’ve told me already.” But maybe because his hearing aids are switched off, or because that’s what I’m there for, he carries on, and tells me again how he crawled towards it and tried to scoop it up, but couldn’t because it wasn’t a potato but the knee of a dead man. He says he still thinks about it nearly every time he sees a potato.
I must have heard near enough all of these stories by now. Stories of his first day as a young German recruit, through to his time in occupied France and Russia, to his surrender in Africa, right down to his demob as a Polish officer. The details though – a particular shell, a damp field they crossed at dawn, even a corpse they created – didn’t come out until I returned from the Falklands. I guess it was because, for the time, we could confirm to each other that it really hadn’t changed that much.
When I told him how some of the shells at Goose Green had landed with no more than a harmless plop because we were fighting on marshy ground, dad told me about artillery fire in France that had screamed into hard ground, and threw skyward hundred-foot plumes of white chalk dust. The fear was exactly the same.
I talked about a wounded Argentine boy I saw take a burst of bullets in the back from 10 feet. He told me how his Free Polish patrol in France came under fire from a German defensive postion. How one of his men was hit. How he picked the wounded man up, put him on his back and carried him towards safety. How he felt the impact. How when he put the man down he was dead.
“They shot him on my back” were the exact words he used when he first told me, and then he nodded, and stared at nothing, and sighed “yes”.
I asked dad once, with no more than a fellow soldier’s cover of curiosity with bravado, what was the most gruesome thing he had seen in his war. He replied that it was a dead black soldier he had seen lying under a stone bridge in France. The soldier, a now very ex-American GI, had his trousers around his ankles, was being eaten by maggots, and stunk the way only rotten death can. He also had a large erection.
He’d certainly never told me that before.