The two men on the left of each picture are the same. A ‘before and after’ with a world of suffering in between.
The first image is a well-known one: a soldier helping a wounded comrade as the troops file away from a gruelling First World War battle. I have a special reason for posting this picture as we remember the Battle of Passchendaele which began one hundred years ago today. The stocky man with the lopsided cap and the haunted eyes, helping a comrade, is my grandfather, Joseph A. W. Peet. Jo Peet to his friends. He was a Nottingham man, a small shopkeeper who began his working life in the Royal Artillery, no doubt without any idea of where it would lead him. According to family legend, he ran away from school, aged 14, to join the Boer War. In this picture, he’s about 30 – a reminder that in World War 1, conscription targeted virtually every able-bodied man.
I’d no idea that this war photo existed until my Uncle Jack, the youngest of Jo’s nine surviving children, sent a book of WW1 photographs to my mother with a note telling her to turn to a particular page. ‘Our Dad!’ This rather more domestic image shows Joseph with Harriet, his second wife and my grandmother.
What can I tell you about Jo Peet, who died a decade before I was born? He wasn’t a saint. In his younger days, according to my mother, he performed at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, wearing nothing but a grass skirt. I know for a certainty he played the banjo, as it came into my mother’s possession at one point. Jo was billed at the theatre as ‘The Little Man with the Big Voice,’ though this is something I’ve not yet been able to verify. My mother spent most of her childhood being brought up by others, and both missed and hero-worshipped her dad.
She also told me that her father ran away to join up for the second Boer War (fought in south Africa at the very end of the 19th century) having skived off school for three days to go fishing. He was a pupil at the Bluecoat School in Nottingham. Fearing a beating for being absent (not, apparently for the first time) he preferred to take his chances in battle. His war record shows him at Woolwich barracks, London, in the artillery. After leaving the army, Jo ran a grocer’s shop until it went bust in the 1930s’ Depression. After which, according to my mum, he started a market stall from his council house garden. Family stories get mangled through the years, but what all this tells me is that Jo Peet was a survivor.
Left to bring up a batch of children after my grandmother’s early death, he did his best to keep his family together in tough circumstances. Two girls, one of them my mum, were sent to Bullwell Hall, a sanatorium-stroke-orphanage on the outskirts of Nottingham. My mother was ultimately taken to live with an uncle and aunt, a move that seemed logical and kind but which separated her from the father she adored. I don’t think she ever got over the separation.
My grandfather was a gifted, conflicted and certainly not born with a silver spoon anywhere near his mouth. Yet he fought in the most horrible conflict humanity has yet conceived, survived and helped a comrade in trouble. When we remember war, let’s bear in mind that it is fought by plain folk. The most flawed men can become heroes in the mud.