“I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine… War is hell” - General Sherman
Today is Remembrance Sunday in England. Ninety five years ago tomorrow, at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of November 1918 the guns ceased to roar on the Western Front and the Great War was declared to be over. The donkeys who started, fostered and prospered from it behind the lines braying loudly and telling everyone that it had been all worth it because it had been the war to end all wars. Although of course it was not. ‘Only a lull between the mass killings to regroup, rearm and start again in 1939. Even when that war ended, it was not the end because ever since there have been wars constantly the world over.
This is not the type of post that I usually write for AAD and I offer no apology. It is the true story of one boy, a war, a white feather and a long forgotten love affair. It is a story repeated millions and millions of times with only slight variation and over countless generations in every country on earth. It is about the true cost of war, the donkeys who start, run, lead and bray about them and the lions who have to fight them paying in death, pain and blood, licking their wounds in private and saying very little. It is also about forgotten loved ones who grieve for them.
The boy’s name was James who was 15 years old in 1914 when the Great War started. Tall, athletic and good looking. A little over one year later, apprenticed to his father, a jeweller and watch maker and living in the fashionable town of Royal Leamington Spa, England, he had a schoolboy crush on a pretty girl who he had met in a library. Early one evening, walking down the main street after seeing her home he was approached by a ‘lady’, a complete stranger who he thought was trying to shake his hand but instead pushed a white feather into it and called him a coward before seeking out her next victim. He had turned seventeen years of age only the previous week.
‘Deeply troubled and telling no one, the next day he used the pretence of an errand to make his way to the army recruitment office where, lying about his age, he ‘Took the Kings Shilling’ and signed into the British Army. His father was horrified. His mother cried. His father went down to the recruiting office to explain, but the recruiting officer was having none of it and refused to accept the truth. The guns of war needed to be well fed, whatever the fodder’s age. James left home to train and his mother continued to weep. His three sisters knitted woolly scarves, socks and gloves for him. I can only guess what his young lady friend might have thought about it.
Pictured here, he was then in the Royal Horse Artillery, ‘ the galloping guns’. We know he saw action somewhere around Amiens because he sent his sister an enamelled broach from there for her birthday. We don’t know where he was the day the other side started to shell his trench position first with high explosive then, with gas shells. His parents in England only received a brief war office telegram reporting him ‘Missing, believed killed in action ‘. Everyone cried. Many weeks later, if you believe in miracles, one happened. On the morning of his mother’s birthday she received a letter. This time from a military hospital in Southampton telling her that her son was still alive and back in England, badly wounded but conscious and asking for her. She was totally unable to speak, but later acknowledged that no mother could ever receive a better birthday present. That day she cried a lot. James was still not yet 20 years old.
After months in hospital and discharged from the army he came home wounded, disabled and suffering from mustard gas inhalation. Physically unable to take up his intended profession and with considerable breathing difficulties he then needed to find work outside despite his fragility and to sleep directly under an open window. With grit, determination and the help and love of his family he survived until his mid fifties when he finally died from the complications of his wounds. He never married.
James George Swieciski was my Uncle Jim. My mother’s big brother. He was one of the most solid, kind, decent, open and uncomplaining men Ihave ever met. He never talked about his war experiences and only once was sharp with me, when as a young boy I made some trite remark about the Germans. He said “Their lads suffered just as much as we did and like us they still suffer”.
I can remember his funeral. A lady I had not seen before, wearing a black veil, put flowers on his grave and walked away. My father hurried after her, put his arm around her shoulder and gently brought her back to where my mother and aunts gathered and who began to fuss around her. I was too young then to understand but I now know that she had been James’ young sweetheart. I don’t know how or when they met up again and it was not my place to inquire. My mother later told me that they could always be seen together each Sunday, walking, or sitting in the park or cinema, always holding hands……. I never knew her name.
So what has all this old history story got to do with Art, Antiques and Design? Everything. Because without the countless unknown ‘Uncle Jim’s’ of this world none of us could now afford the luxury of enjoying any of it.
Please then, for the sake of the ‘lions’, the John Doe’s, the Tommy Atkins and every soldier or veteran who today still suffer for us, and for the sake of all children yet unborn, let us try to find future leaders who do not have feet of clay. Leaders who never again waste so much in the name of a ‘Just War’. If mankind is to survive then we need solid leaders with the backbone, wisdom and good common sense to bring about real world peace and prosperity. We need lions for leaders and no more braying donkeys…