The poem below was written by Richard Gill whose Uncle Sidney served as a machine gunner in the Great War. He lost a leg on the Western front when, just released from duty, a shell fell on his gun battery, killed everyone except Sidney, but wounded him in the leg which soon became gangrenous and was removed.
Back home he was unusual in talking about his experiences to his family. Many men were reluctant to bring the horrific memories of war back into the heart of their families, and wished to forget as much as possible. Sidney however told of going out into no man’s land to rescue the injured, and seeing one man lying in a shell hole with a hugely bloated leg, so swollen that he had obviously been there for several days. He was also adamant that the frequently cited camaraderie between the ordinary privates in the British and German trenches was a myth, rather there was a deep hatred of the Germans in the British ranks. Mr. Gill’s mother, born in 1907, remembers being taken to public halls to see newsreels from the front, and recalls a woman jumping up from her seat to shout “Look, it’s our John!”. She would recite poems while waving the Union Jack, such as “’tis my flag and thy flag”.
Not from the distant nearness of the second was,
I learnt about the men I bought my poppy for.
We saw them as we passed through Richmond Gate –
The limbless soldiers lined up in bath chairs.
Mum said it was the Star and Garter Home,
Where middle-aged survivors of the Somme
Sat in the sun to watch the passing cars,
While we fixed them up with curious children’s stares.
And one time in a fusty corner shop
A tall man with one leg gave me a sweet;
A single shell on his gun battery
And years of incremental surgery
Confined my Uncle Sidney to
The smoke of one grey Bradford terraced street.
And Mum recalled a make-shift cinema,
Where newsreels of the Western Front were seen
From penny benches in a public hall,
And though a child she felt with pathos how
A mother stood and shouted, “It’s our John”
At one face passing on the flickering screen.