The two men on the left of each picture are the same. A ‘before and after’ with a world of suffering in between.

Joseph Alfred

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. img306

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.


3 responses to “A grandfather’s war, 100 years on”

  1. Susan Skvorc says:

    I am the granddaughter of Joseph Peet, the daughter of the second girl, Edna. My mother is still living. Until 3 weeks ago she was looking after herself in a self care unit in a retirement village in Camden, NSW, Australia, but having had a stroke, which has blanked out her time management and organisational skills, she cannot be left alone and we are preparing for her to go into full time care in the same village. Her son, Stephen will still be able to take her to all the activities she is used to and she will be among friends. Mum has fond memories of her father, who died when I was almost 9 years old. I can still see him sitting in his chair with his gramophone behind him. He kept sweets in the two little doors below it and would give Roger and I one each when we left. Mum took care of her father in the last few years of his life. She would take us to the Crane School in the morning and spend a couple of hours with Granddad doing his housework or whatever else he needed. She then walked home and came back in the afternoon to collect us and to check on him before walking home with us. She said her Dad was the kindest and most generous man she ever knew. His business went broke as did many during the Depression. He had shares which he was unable to sell and could not bear to see children going hungry when their parents were unable to pay for their goods. Harriet was the same, allowing people to take things “on Tick” knowing they would never be paid for. When Harriet was close to death she begged Aunt Omi and Uncle David, who had no children of their own to “Take care of my little Beryl” Beryl was fed, clothed and educated to a level envied by my mother, who was denied the education she desired as she was female and “Girls get married”, but Beryl missed out on the companionship of her brothers and sisters, perhaps a greater loss. Granddad was unable to care for all his children in the early years following Harriet’s death. He went to night school to learn how to grow vegetables to feed his family and also gave haircuts to supplement his meagre pension. When he was ready, he called his children home and did the best he could. Mum remembers many evenings of her playing the piano (she was self taught) and Granddad teaching her all the old songs. With all good wishes from your cousin, Susan

    • nataliemeg-admin says:

      Hi Susan, lovely to hear from you and to learn more about the grandad I never met. But do you know more about the theatre and grass skirt story?

  2. Susan Skvorc says:

    Sorry Natalie, I have not been told many of Grandad’s stories. Mum did tell us that apparently he received a notice from the Taxation Department that he had to pay tax on income received from selling vegetables he had grown in his garden and he wrote back asking them to “Please send me some bloody income!” She also said that the business didn’t actually go broke, but the owner of the building he rented denied him further tenancy and handed the business over to his own son. Unfortunately, Mum’s memory deteriorated quite rapidly in the last few years. She was never really interested in us knowing much about family history. She never wanted us to know about Dad’s time in the war either and nipped those conversations in the bud before Dad ever had a chance to tell us anything. Our son, David, was particularly keen to know more and managed to catch him alone one day. He had just begun to open up when Mum came on the scene and he was bitterly disappointed. By the way, you seem to have edited this article a little since I last read it. I had heard the story of Uncle Lew and the art competition, but did not know that he did not get support from his father.

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