Many who know me can attest to the fact that for years I have been fascinated with learning about the First World War, a conflict that despite impacting every aspect of the 20th and 21st centuries, is largely overlooked today. I attribute this keen fascination of mine to the personal connection I have to the conflict: my Great-Grandfather on my father’s side, Percy Robert Alderman, served in the war fighting for the British on the Western Front. Later in his life, he wrote a memoir detailing many of his experiences in the army.
Born in 1899, he was too young to serve for most of the war, but he did not let that stop him. He was so eager to join that he lied about his age when he was 17, a common occurrence in that time when patriotic fervor was sweeping nations, calling every able-bodied man to the front. Both fortunately and unfortunately for Percy Robert, his gig was up when his mother sent his birth certificate to the camp he was at, thus revealing the truth, and he was soon sent home. However, once he had turned 18 a few months later, nothing stopped him from eagerly joining the army.
And so in March of 1918, 100 years ago this month, my Great-Grandfather, Percy Robert Alderman, was shipped from Folkestone, England to Boulogne to begin his service in France, fighting for the King and Country.
Upon reading his memoir over when I was younger, I was enthralled to read the real-life war stories that I could connect to personally. “Wow, look at how brave he was when he was my age!”, I thought as I read about his short period in the war. But reading these pages over now, I read these occurrences in a very different light. Reading back over the words that he wrote now, 100 years after he went through these experiences, I see them in a much different way.
The Thrills and Terrors of War
Writing about his assignment as a company scout, he wrote:
“All went well until late afternoon when someone must have spotted us. Several shell bursts landed far too near to be accidental, making our shell hole a decidedly undesirable residence. We decided to make a run for it whilst the shells were falling as they made such a smother that there was a chance the Germans would not see us. And did we run!”
Following his escape from the artillery that afternoon, he faced peril on a daily basis. Soon enough he was brought close to death again, this time by millimeters rather than meters. Writing about an instance where he and his comrades came under fire, he wrote:
“At first, when our section got up, bullets were hitting the ground ahead of us, then men began to drop, the man next to me hit through the thigh. Our numbers became smaller but we still kept going on.”
Continuing on, he wrote:
“I received a heavy blow which knocked me back and turned me over. A bullet had hit the mess tin I carried on my back and had been deflected to cause a glancing wound along my spine … The wound caused temporary paralysis”
He waited several hours on the ground until he was able to move again, which only wrought more misfortune upon him:
“Whether the Germans saw my attempts to move and also the machine gun by my side, I do not know but they lobbed over a light mortar shell at me. Luckily it did not land too close but a fragment hit my left wrist and fractured it.”
Artillery, machine guns, and mortar shells. Weapons that killed and maimed untold millions in that war were being aimed directly at a member of my family. I have never faced a life-or-death situation before, especially not one where someone is actively trying to kill me, but reading about it happening to an ancestor put a lot of things in a much different perspective.
Luckily, he eventually escaped the situation and was brought home, where he recovered from his injuries. Although, my father has told me that he always had a slight shake to his left arm. But imagine this, if a single German soldier had been slightly more accurate, my Great-Grandfather would have been killed and my entire family would not be here today, myself included. All it would have taken was one bullet aimed slightly higher, one attentive rifleman who could have spotted him while he lay paralyzed, one stray fragment from an artillery shell, and I would not be here today. I am only here because of luck.
Learning The Lessons of Death
Often times we ignore this fact: the reality that one day we shall die. You may not even wake up tomorrow. That day may come sooner or later than we think, we may see it coming months or years in advance, or it may strike us out of the blue, like the artillery shells that almost took my great-grandfather’s life. Unfortunately nobody is invincible, look at the millions of men butchered in the senseless conflict that nearly took the life of my great-grandfather.
Growing up, and still to this day, my mother joked and talked about how one day she’ll be dead, usually when we took her for granted in some way. My sister and I have always tended to write this off as the superstitious ramblings of a Greek mother, we uncomfortably shifted away from this glaring reality she was proclaiming. However over the years, having confronted the deaths of family members and generally having opened my eyes to the hardships in the world, I’ve realized that she is right, and not only about herself, but about me, and eventually about my children, and their children, and everyone I will have and ever will meet. One day we won’t be here anymore.
Despite what some may say, death does not mean that life has no meaning, but rather the opposite. It gives purpose.
You have heard a version of the following story many times before: a woman is diagnosed with a disease deemed incurable, or with a cancer that has spread too far to be treated, and she has only months to live. Immediately, she quits her day job and does what she has always dreamed of doing, volunteering to give humanitarian aid in poverty-stricken countries, spreading joy to others before she is unable to do so anymore. In addition she calls old friends, makes peace with distant relatives, and at last feels prepared to exit this world. Then suddenly, her disease is cured, or the cancer goes into remission, and she no longer has a finite timer on her life.
But is that what it takes? Do we have to be brought to the literal brink of death to finally learn how to appreciate life?
Of course, I’m not suggesting that every one of us immediately throw down our commitments and live as if there will be no tomorrow, society would collapse in the blink of an eye. However, maybe we should all learn to come to peace with the fact that one day we will no longer be here, and strive to build our lives so that whenever death inevitably looms towards us, we can look back and smile upon the life that we have lived.
There are two ways to learn this lesson. First, there is the hard way, where we are taught of death’s swift grasp through the eventual death of a loved one or a tragic mass loss of life, and are left grieving and confused.
But there is an easier way, where we can realize that death is a natural consequence of life, and can remind ourselves gently throughout our life that the clock is running, and that an idle life is a wasted life. We can remember too, that there is life besides our own and that even if we are not around to see it, we can improve this world for the following generations.
My Great-Grandfather had to learn this lesson the hard way. Though he escaped both of those deadly encounters with relatively minor injuries, these cannot compare to what it may have done to him mentally.
I never got to meet my great-grandfather, his generation had long since passed by the time I was born, but I cannot imagine the sheer terror that those encounters entailed, and the mental and emotional trauma World War I wrought on millions of people.
The Luck of My Life
I, on the other hand get to learn the lesson of life the easy way, living in the most peaceful and prosperous time in history. I live in a world like this because of the blood, sweat, and tears spilled by my ancestors who worked their whole lives to give me this life of luxury and comfort. I can learn these lessons that they had to suffer through by reminding myself that death strikes swiftly and randomly, and that none are safe from its pursuit. I am not disheartened by this reality. Though I continue and will continue to grapple with it, I can use my great-grandfather’s memoir to remind myself that I am lucky to be here.
I should work quickly and diligently to ensure that if I were to depart today, tomorrow, or in one hundred years, I can leave behind a world that is better than I found it. If I waste my life, I will be disgracing the lives of those who came before me, who did so much to ensure that I live a comfortable life. I will honor the memory of my ancestors by working hard with the gifts they left me to improve the lives of not only my eventual successors, but also the lives of everyone in this world.
In one of the most picturesque areas of my college campus, at the foot of the fountain which forms the centerpiece of the forum, there lies an often-overlooked plaque that reads, “Build for the future, while others think only of today”.
Thank you, family members who I’ll never meet, for giving me these gifts. I will make you proud.
If the story of my great-grandfather, Percy Robert Alderman, fascinates you and you would like to learn more, here is his full account of his time spent in the war. If you are able to help me learn more about the places where he fought and the men he fought alongside, feel free to reach out!
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