Dave Gilhooly: The poppy and the memory of great-uncle Dennis

A vigil at Thiepval memorial in France. Photograph: Yui Mok/Getty
A vigil at Thiepval memorial in France. Photograph: Yui Mok/Getty
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I’ve never been exposed to war or the horrors that passed as daily life in the trenches. So, far removed in time and distance from the Great War, I get an inkling of what it must have been like from grainy old black and white film, and it fills me with sadness.

Those grainy images show kilted men climbing out of the trenches and running towards a blizzard of bullets, exploding earth and plumes of smoke; ghosts before their time. But what must have gone through their minds as they tried to negotiate a passage through No Man’s Land? Are they still seeking answers, those young men, whose beauty and youth were ripped from them day after hellish day, before they were finally taken?

Even when they were not going over the top they had to live in horrendous conditions, surrounded by water, mud and scuttling rats with the terrifying sound of exploding shells and screams in the background.

It’s over a century since my great-uncle Dennis, a private in the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders), was killed in July 1916 during the battle of the Somme. An 18-year-old, like so many other young men, deprived of life in a “civilised” Europe which seemed not to care how many were sacrificed in war. During the battle of the Somme alone, which lasted 141 days, over a million died or were wounded (on all sides). Millions more died throughout the whole war.

Sadly, all family photos from that time were lost in a house fire so I have no idea what Dennis actually looked like, although I have a vague recollection of my granny showing me a photo of a kilted soldier when I was a young lad.

For those waiting at home when family members were on active service, there must have been the constant dread of that knock at the door and delivery of a telegram with grim news of a loved one. I also visualise groups of neighbours anxiously scanning published casualty lists hoping not to recognise any names.

Is it odd to feel so much sorrow for people I have never known who died before I was born? I don’t think so and believe that most folk probably feel the same when reminded of the sacrifices that our armed services have made in the many conflicts they have been involved in. Body bags still come home to grieving loved ones and mutilated, damaged men and women are still being returned to society. I give thanks that my sons enjoyed their youth without being exposed to the terrors of war.

When I was younger I felt so strongly that governments, not charities, should provide for service personnel and their families blighted by wars fought on our behalf that I refused to buy a poppy. Over the years I have come to accept the real need for charities in helping to fill the gap left by government underfunding.

So as the bugle sounds and the pipes play The Floo’ers o’ the Forest this Armistice Day and images appear of millions of poppies dancing on the bones of dead soldiers, I will give my thanks to all those who died in wars, just or otherwise, on our behalf and those who returned damaged.

I also pray that politicians stop taking our armed forces into wars we should not be involved in. I recall a few years ago hearing Britain’s oldest war veteran talking to young people about the Great War and the need to avoid wars. Hopefully future generations will do better at keeping the peace.

Dave Gilhooly’s great-uncle Dennis is listed on the Thiepval Memorial to 72,246 missing British and South African servicemen who died in the Battle of the Somme with no known grave