My mother’s family had the name of Yule, and my mother’s great-uncle was a fellow called John Marshall, who was a bit of an entrepreneur and did all sorts of things. And he was definitely in the trenches and survived.
The unit he was with overran some German trenches and he picked two items – really heavy ones. One is a lovely bell which the Germans used when the British were sending the gas across: the gas bell.
The use of gas was one of the most horrible, barbaric ways of making war. They used to send clouds of poison gas around. It used to just find all the lowest points, and wherever it found a trench it used to go down into it. Chlorine gas is horribly poisonous. It makes you temporarily or permanently blind; it’s really horrible stuff. And it’s undiscriminating: it attacks everybody it comes across.
By ringing the bell it gave all the soldiers time enough to put their gas masks on, and then they might survive.
The other one is a surveying instrument. Why did they have a surveying instrument in the trenches? If you think about it the trenches are a complex network of tunnels and trenches and, if you want to lob shells from one place to another, you have to know how far away the other side’s trenches are, and the only way you do that is by making maps. So every trench in the war zone was very carefully mapped, not only mapped for where it was in position, but what level it was. Is it higher than where I am firing this gun from or is it lower?
If you are digging tunnels underneath the enemy lines to plant enormous piles of explosives – which is what they used to do – how do you know where your tunnel’s got to? Is it really directly underneath where you want it to be, and how far underneath is it? Is it 5 feet or 50 feet (or, should I say, 2 metres or 20 metres)? All the time you’re digging trenches you’ve got to have surveying instruments.
It’s about 160 years old – so it was an old instrument even when it was in the trenches.
I think the First World War was one of the biggest wastes of human life, for no obvious reason, that there’s ever been. It was called ‘The Great War’ when it was finished because they said we could never get another war as bad as that one. And, of course, 21 years later we did.
The tentacles of war actually spread everywhere. It’s surprising, even the wars in far-off lands, they do stretch all over the place. Every family in this country has direct connections with the First and Second World Wars – you just have to look a bit; they’re there. Everybody in this country was affected.
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Jonathan Walton – Gallery