For Remembrance Day, this is my maternal grandfather, Alexander Kennel-Webb, who I think was in the 8th (Service) Battalion, Norfolk Regiment. Service battalions were part of Kitchener’s ‘New Army,’ and were raised entirely from volunteers. (My father’s father, James, was a professional soldier; an RSM in The British Indian Army, he returned home during the war to train volunteers like Alexander – I don’t have a picture of him in uniform.) The 8th Battalion formed part of the 53rd Brigade of the 18th (Eastern) Division, which fought on the first day of the Somme, resulting in 57,000 British casualties alone.
Alexander was subsequently gassed on the Somme, almost certainly by his own side. He was plagued by breathing and emotional problems for the rest of his life, the latter of which almost certainly contributed to the collapse of his marriage to my grandmother, Alice, and his difficult relationship with his kids. My mother lost touch with him in the early-fifties, and as far as we could work out he died alone in a nursing home in London about ten years later. I never met him, he was out of the picture before I was born, but my older sister didn’t like him. I think my Mum gave up on him because he was very cruel to my sister, who was born out of wedlock in the Second World War (her father was killed on D-Day). Alexander came from Diss. He was a lapsed Catholic, a tailor and he loved cats. Mum always said he was a perfectionist, and reckoned that was where my similar and obsessive attention to detail in my own work must have come from. I don’t know much else about him, but I recognise the features from my mother’s brothers, and from my own son.
Shell shock made the brave, daft, slightly apprehensive but easy-going young guy in this picture into a very different man than the one Nature intended, and the fall-out from his fractured soul and broken home poisoned the family for generations. I hung in after my parents died, but cut the mooring line when I married Gracie. I just couldn’t handle them anymore.
Let’s not let this happen again, ’eh?
No doubt they’ll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they’re ‘longing to go out again,’—
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they’ll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter’d all their pride…
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.
Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Survivors,’ Counter Attack (1918).