Tuesday, April 9, 2024

the unknown soldier

Michael Palin, Great-Uncle Harry: A Tale of War and Empire (Random House Canada, 2023)

Of World War I battles, I'm particularly interested in the Battle of the Somme (July-November 1916) because that's the one J.R.R. Tolkien fought in. He was his battalion's signaling officer, rotating between the front lines and reserves as was customary, for four months during this battle until he fell ill. During this time his close friend R.Q. Gilson was killed on the first day of the battle. Tolkien's other close friend G.B. Smith died after the battle had petered out, but it was still possible to be hit by a German shell, which Smith was.

Another notable figure killed on the Somme was George Butterworth, one of the most promising young English composers.

But so were many others. The lives of the little-known are no less valuable spiritually than the famed. They deserve to be remembered, and their lives can give us a context to understand others. Here's a biography of one: Lance-Corporal H.W.B. Palin, killed on September 27, 1916, aged 32.

Michael Palin, the Monty Python guy, received a sheaf of family papers, including the terse but extensive diaries of his grandfather's youngest brother, Harry. Michael had known virtually nothing about Harry, but he set out to learn more. Michael is indefatigable in his research - to the extent that John Cleese yawns theatrically when the subject of Michael's books comes up - and he found quite a lot. He is also big on the garrulous digressions: for instance, when discussing Harry's relationship with his much older siblings, Michael recounts his own relationship with his much older sister.

Though Michael doesn't like to say so in so many words, Harry was an underachiever. Unlike his oldest brother, he did poorly in school. He went off to India to earn his fortune like so many ambitious young Englishmen in those imperial days, but failed miserably, being fired for poor work from two blue-collar jobs, on a railway and at a tea plantation. (He did, however, learn Urdu - not Hindi, Urdu, a curiosity not addressed - which served him well later on.) He seems to have done somewhat better as a farm laborer in New Zealand, clearing tree stumps off some newly-designated farmland (Michael does not discuss the environmental damage attendant on this). That's where Harry was when war broke out in 1914, and he joined the Anzacs. He was one of the few uninjured survivors of the horrors of Gallipoli, where in addition to regular soldiering he served as a translator for troops from the subcontinent. Then he was sent to France where the Somme awaited.

Despite Michael's confident command of detail, and his sure way of covering gaps in the historical record, he seems fuzzy about some facts. Besides my not being certain that he knows the difference between Urdu and Hindi, I'm not certain he knows the difference between a vicar and a rector, one of which Harry's father was.

But despite these things, this is a fascinating and readable book. The accumulation of detail helps the reader understand the environments in which Harry lived, a necessary approach given the paucity of primary source material. I'm glad I picked this one up from the library.

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