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  1. Granddad Mennell’s war (one of ten runners up, Sunday Times FWW comp. 2018)

    On the first Saturday night of war my granddad, Albert Mennell, rolled out of the Brass Tap in Scarborough at closing time straight into the arms of local recruiting sergeants who were lurking outside. Full of beery patriotism he signed away his freedom on the dotted line. Only a few unsteady steps from his home in Longwestgate he wrote ‘thirty-seven’ beside the ambiguously worded ‘apparent age’ and woke up next morning a private soldier of the British army. He wasn’t the only one. More than a million patriots signed on the dotted line that year – two hundred thousand before the end of September and many, tipsy like granddad, regretted it the following day. It was the largest voluntary enlistment ever recorded but volunteers were supposed to be less than forty years old and taller than five foot three inches. Granddad Mennell was forty two and only five foot tall with his boots on, a hard working brewery cooper during the week, but partial to a Saturday night drink and that was his downfall.

    My grandma, Elizabeth Mennell, was forty five years old, with one small child and pregnant with my mother. She was livid. By Christmas 1914 Granddad was in France digging trenches at the front. Short and sturdy, he was the perfect build for a cooper – all that bending down and dressing out; a taller man would soon have been suffering with his back. Short and sturdy was also perfect for trench diggers who needed well developed shoulder muscles, strong legs for anchorage in mud and a head that didn’t poke over the top as tin hats were not issued until 1916. He dug trenches for the rest of the war and came back in 1919, an alcoholic with damaged lungs.
    My mother was four when she first clapped eyes on her father. The morning after he arrived home she awoke to discover a stranger sleeping in the bed on the other side of her mother. “Who’s that man?” she demanded. ‘That’s your father,’ was the reply and the following night she was bundled into the attic with her older sister Florence, and was not impressed. Unlike Florence, she never knew the father who had been quite different from the sick, bad tempered, swearing man he had become. He would sit in his armchair gasping for breath and coughing phlegm into a pot at his side. Every weekend he drank to forget the Dardanelles, the Somme and Baulicaurt, but drinking brought memories crowding back and they were as real to him as when they happened – ‘the blood, the snot, the stink’.

    When my mother started Friarage school in 1919 there was much classroom discussion about the war. She stood up proudly and said ‘Please Miss Constable, my father was a Private’. The teacher replied ‘Sit down Ivy Mennell. Your father wasn’t important’. He was bitterly angry when she told him, stabbing the air with his stubby finger and shouting ‘ Go tell your teacher it were bloody privates that won war!’
    Vivienne (Sutton) Graham, Hillcrest, Woodhouse Hill, Uplyme, DT7 3SL

    01297 444134

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