Neil Smith

3 years ago · 5 min. reading time · visibility 0 ·

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War and Family.

War and Family.

Apart from the genetic inheritance I don’t have much from William Leslie, my maternal grandfather. He died a fair while back and we last met when I was about two years old. Mostly he exists in my mind as a collection of fuzzy, black and white photos. Pictures of a man I hardly knew, alive in a bygone time. I distrust the memories I have because I can’t be sure if they are real or just my imagined, reconstructed images from pictures seen and stories told. I last saw him as a very small child when I was looked after by him during a difficult time in my mum’s early life. My mother’s family, like many is a bit sprawling, with a brother, my uncle Norman and several older half siblings. She was the daughter of her father’s third wife and many of the children moved from Scotland around the world, settling in places as diverse as Ireland and New Zealand.

In this age of gap year trips and round the world tours it is easy to forget that for most of the people leaving Scotland at that time, especially those settling down under, this was a point in history when such journeys were usually thought of as a one way only proposition. The prevailing assumption was that they were sailing off to start a new life in a distant land and if it was hard or didn’t work out then tough luck. There was no handy escape route available. The lack of long distance telephony and slow speed of surface mail coupled with the absolute non-existence of email, VOIP and other computer based communication often meant that family members drifted apart and either communicated sporadically by letter or lost contact entirely.

Thus it was for us. My sisters and I grew up in the Scottish Highlands hearing stories from my mother about my uncle Norman, my granddad and her early life in the highlands at a place near Kingussie called Torcroy. We knew that they had emigrated to New Zealand at the back end of the sixties and that was about the extent of it.

Fast forward to 2017 and now several members of a long lost family have renewed contact thanks to the efforts of a cousin researching our family tree from her home in Australia. My mum and her younger brother Norman are back in touch after half a lifetime and I now know that we have family scattered all over the globe from Ireland to the French Alps, New Zealand and Australia amongst other places and that they are more numerous than I could possibly have imagined. Lots and lots of people, growing up, raising families, going to work watching the world go by and all getting on with the business of being human. All of them, however distant they may be, however little I know about them, all FAMILY.

It is impossible to put into words how much of a sense of belonging this has engendered in me. I sit typing on a keyboard and find myself constantly looking for the extra letters that should be added to the English language to enable me to expand my vocabulary enough to put feelings into words and fully describe the sense of being part of a larger entity which allows me, in a small way, to feel less alone in a huge and empty universe. And at the keyboard I may continue to look in vain.

Stupid keyboard!

Last December we went back to Scotland from Wicklow to visit friends and family for a few days. My daughter wanted snow, my wife wanted a break and I wanted to catch up with old friends at Hogmanay. In the event we all got a little bit of what we wanted and we all got the flu as well. A free gift or a kind of unwanted bonus.

During the trip though something incredible happened.

My mother presented me with my Grandfather’s World War 1 campaign medals. They had been sent to her, with instructions to pass them on, by my uncle who I had last met as a child of two.

William Leslie served in France during the Great War. Like many who returned he didn’t speak much about his experiences except with other veterans who had also done their time in the trenches. Following the war he married thrice, emigrated once and hopefully found peace and happiness in the legacy he left behind.

When I was given the medals I couldn’t believe it. Possibly my Uncle Norman had had some kind of seizure or had mistakenly sent them on to me whilst under the influence of hard core medication? I was assured that this was not the case.


The medals sat on my bedside table for the duration of my stay and I looked at them every day. Since coming back home to Ireland I check them often just to make sure they are still there. They are the British War Medal 1914-1918 and the Allied Victory Medal. They were issued to servicemen and next of kin after the war. About 6.5 million of the British War Medal were struck, and 5.7 million of the Allied Victory medal. They are campaign medals, not issued for incredible acts of heroism but for an instance of bravery I feel of almost equal importance. These medals were presented to soldiers who bore witness to one of the darkest periods in our history. They saw terrible things as they, their friends and comrades were killed, maimed and injured before their eyes. They struggled to stay alive in fields of mud as strangers tried to kill them and they tried to kill strangers and at the end of it all, when the guns finally fell silent and they were allowed to return home by an uncaring government, it was as changed men. They hid the horrors behind their eyes, made the best of life and generally suffered in silence. They were expected to pick up where they had left off and by and large they just got on with it, unable and unwilling to talk of the experience. How do you describe utter hellishness to someone who wasn’t there? Mostly you don’t.

The soldiers in the trenches lived in constant fear as did the rats they shared the trenches with. The rats were so scared that they would hide under the insteps of the men’s boots during bombardments. William was wounded at the Somme and spent six months in hospital before being returned to his unit at the front. When he got back it was to find that there was not a single person left in his unit that he knew. They were either badly wounded or killed.

Following the armistice Sergeant Leslie as he now was, marched into Germany following the retreating German forces. Once there the British soldiers spent much of their time getting bored and drinking. One night on his way back to camp he drunkenly rounded up a lost army mule and sold it to a local farmer. When the Artillery Corp found their mule hitched to a plough the powers that be were less than impressed. Following the briefest of enquiries Sergeant Leslie left the hearing as Private Leslie once again.

His unit was returned to the UK and he was eventually demobbed in 1920. Just in time for his twenty first birthday. Dulce et decorum est.

Now I plan to polish the medals up so they shine enough to hurt the eye, put them in frame which I will hang on the wall and then I will show them to my daughter, explain what they are and what they mean and all the while I will hope that she never, ever has to experience anything like it.

To my Uncle Norman who sent me these I can only say thank you and that you have no idea how grateful, how humbled and how honoured I feel.

To Private William Leslie 26413 , Seaforth Highlanders.  1899-1976. Thank you also. I hope very much that you are resting in the peace you have earned. To Grampa Willee from the excitable two year old I once was; I’m sorry we missed each other for so long.

6926f770.jpgGranddad William Leslie and my Uncle Norman. Dates uncertain.

An excellent source of information on all matters relating to the First World War

This is a preserved area of trenches maintained by the Canadian military. I came across it by accident whilst hitching through France many years ago. The tours are informative and passionate and the visitor centre is excellent. The battlefields give a remarkable insight into how up close the fighting and trenches were. Like two unruly groups of supporters at a very violent football match. It is however much too clean. Try to imagine it when the mud is up to your arse and the rats run about as they please.

A youtube documentary channel chock full of information.


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Neil Smith

3 years ago #4

Thanks mum. Glad you liked it.

Neil Smith

3 years ago #3

That's praise indeed, coming from you Pascal. Thanks.

Hazel Smith

3 years ago #2

A very touching read Neil Smith

Pascal Derrien

3 years ago #1

that's a brilliant article Neil Smith :-)

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