Defending empire – with millions of deaths

Review: Vivien Horler

Great-Uncle Harry – A tale of war and empire, by Michael Palin (Hutchinson Heinemann)

I’ve never been to the World War I cemeteries of France, but I’ve seen pictures of them. Acres of green grass starred with regular rows of pale crosses. Hundreds and thousands of them, each representing a person, usually young, usually a man, who gave his life for his country.

Who were all those young men, and does anyone today know or care?  Do those rows of graves present a salutary lesson about the vast carnage that can result when countries go to war? Apparently not – in 1939, only 21 years after the guns fell silent, war broke out again in Europe.

And right now there is war in Europe once more, as well as the horrors in Israel-Palestine that are consuming lives.

Perhaps it is enough that people are remembered, and their stories told.

One such story is that of Henry Palin, known to his family as Harry, who was born in 1884 and was killed in action, aged 32, on September 27, 1916, in the Battle of the Somme.

He was the youngest son of a former Oxford don and clergyman, and his Irish orphan wife who had been brought up and educated in the United States. They met on holiday in the Alps, and although he was 18 years her senior, they appear to have had a satisfactory marriage.

A restless Harry had none of the drive of his erudite father. He was a drifter, and entirely unacademic. But his elder sister Tissie had married a cloth manufacturer based in India, where there were plenty of job opportunities for young Englishmen, so shortly after Harry turned 20 he set sail for Calcutta to work on the railways.

This venture was not successful, and after a year or two he resigned. Another post was found for him, this time on a tea plantation. Once again he didn’t prosper, and a report to the plantation’s head office in Glasgow contained the devastating sentence: “He seems to be lacking in intelligence.”

His great-nephew, the multi-talented explorer, writer and filmmaker Michael Palin, is indignant at this, suggesting Harry was not stupid, just “tricky to handle”. Whatever the case, Harry was fired and the company paid for his passage back to England.

Loyally, Palin says while some at the time may have thought Harry had let the Empire down, “he would ultimately ride to its rescue at its hour of greatest danger”.

Harry’s next adventure was to go to New Zealand to work as a farmhand on the South Island. Here he seems to have been much happier, possibly because society was more informal than in England or British India. He worked hard and stayed in his job for more than two years.

Then came the outbreak of World War I. Within a week 14 000 New Zealand volunteers signed up, including Harry, who enlisted with the 12th Nelson Regiment.

They first sailed to Egypt, and the horrors of Gallipoli followed. The Australian and New Zealand troops, formally combined into the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac) were to be part of a two-pronged assault on the Gallipoli pensinsula, at the mouth of the Dardanelles Strait.

Winston Churchill, at that stage First Sea Lord, was covinced that whoever controlled the Dardanelles controlled access to Turkey’s Istanbul, Germany’s ally.

He said allied troops, including the Anzacs, would clear the way in a matter of days. In fact they they were there for months, with an appalling loss of life. To this day, April 25, Anzac Day, is a public holiday and commemorated with extreme solemnity in both Australia and New Zealand.

The Gallipoli assault was a disaster. Palin reports an estimated 300 000 Turks died defending their country, while the British and French took around 250 000 casualties. Of a total of 17 000 New Zealanders – bear in mind the country today has a population of only around five million – nearly 3 000 died.

And then it was on to France. Harry arrived in April 2016, had eight days’ leave in England in May, was promoted to the rank of lance corporal in July, turned 32 in mid-September and was dead by the end of the month.

The trouble with Great Uncle Harry is that Harry wasn’t a particularly interesting person. He was certainly brave, and he endured horrendous privations. He never married – although he did propose, unsuccessfully, to a young woman in London during his May leave in 2016.

Palin, whom fans will know as one of the Monty Python team, has written well and persuasively, and has done meticulous research to establish the facts and some of the emotions of his relative. And he was helped by the journal entries Harry kept. But they were terse and brief.

Palin pores over the diaries of others who were present at the time to flesh out his narrative. He writes: “Sometimes I wish he could be more poetic… But then I have to remind myself… that Harry’s brusque unembellished diary entries capture the moment with no time for analysis or the benefits of hindsight… The one thing the diaries have taught me is that he doesn’t want to be let go, to be unremembered. If he had, he wouldn’t have gone to the effort of recording his experiences in the thick of battle.

Years later Palin goes to France to find the spot where Harry perished. It “is so tranquil now that as I passed along quiet roads, over gentle hills and through sparsely populated villages, it took a real effort of the imagination to conjure up the inferno that it had once witnessed”.

Would this book have been published if the author had not been the famous Michael Palin? I’m not sure. But it reminds a new generation of the ghastliness of war, the trudge of it, the horror, the fear. There is no glory, and very little honour.


One thought on “Defending empire – with millions of deaths

  1. David Bristow

    I noticed on Friday that at Garden of Rememberance in the actual Gardens, there is a boarded off area that seems to be readying for a kind of WWI graves installation.


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