Christmas Gift Held Memories

A remarkable bitter‑sweet memory is evoked by a Christmas present that included a picture of my father.

John O’Sullivan’s new book on A Century of Cardiff shows him being trained as a machine gunner in World War 1. It was a role that sealed his fate.

Machine gunners on both sides were feared and loathed. They were directly responsible for thousands of deaths. No quarter would be given. They were convinced that they would never be taken prisoners.

He heard the sounds of a German mopping up group approaching the foxhole. Using his Rosary beads he prayed, closed his and waited for the bullet that would finish him off.

It did not come. Instead the German officer ordered that he should be carried three miles to their hospital. There he received skilled surgery for his shattered leg.

His war memories delighted in tales of the unfailing kindness and humour of the 'enemy'. His bitterness was for an ungrateful British government. His wounds meant that he could never do what he called 'a man's job' again.

He had volunteered for service as a healthy, patriotic-under-aged 15-year-old. His body was crippled on the fields of the Somme. Yet, in 1935, a Cardiff tribunal decided that his health problems were not 'attributable' to his wounds but had been 'aggravated' by them. His pittance of a war pension was cut to a dirt poverty level.

There was another war legacy. Although deprived of of many life comforts in the trenches, soldiers were given free cigarettes and alcohol. My father died of lung cancer at the age of 43.

What would he make of our Europe? The hellish killing fields are now farmland or memorial parks. The centuries of constant hatred are over.

He would rejoice that his beloved Germans are no longer enemies and that his mother tongue is the dominant European language.

It's a comforting thought that, somewhere in the great beyond, he is now celebrating the sanity and unity of a common European currency. Perhaps, even in the company of the German officer who saved his life. His name was Paul.

©: Paul Flynn MP, Newport West, Newport, Wales.

Published in Cardiff's 'South Wales Echo' in December 2007.

The author has recently blogged an updated version of this article.

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