James Flynn in training
My father died when I was five, but it was not until I was seventy-four that I found out the full story of his life and death. I realise now that almost all of my present passions are rooted in incidents from my childhood.
I can recall only one visit to dad’s grave in Cardiff’s Ely cemetery with my weeping mother. Their marriage was not perfect. Only later did I learn of the despair of a man whose self-respect was destroyed by the First World War. His humour and good looks were celebrated and frequently recalled with pride by his three brothers, two sisters and by his many friends. We were shielded from the occasional excesses of the drink to which he turned. My few memories are of a rumbustious, lovely man who brought fun and laughter to any company he joined.
My information on my father’s record in the First World War was sketchy. He had added a few months to his fifteen years to become a soldier. He was made a machine gunner. Both sides in the First World War regarded machine gunners as pariahs because of the number of lives that they took. The canard was that neither the Germans nor British would spare a machine gunner. He would be killed, not taken prisoner.
The family knew that during the war he had been shot in the leg, that he was marooned in no man’s land and could not escape from his machine gun placement. He heard a German-speaking group approaching, took his rosary beads and said his Hail Marys with his eyes shut. He waited for the bullet. It never came. The officer leading the Germans was a Catholic. They carried him three miles on their backs to a field hospital. He would have bled to death in the foxhole. My father believed that the rosary beads saved his life. The officer ensured that he was well treated at a hospital where he had surgery for his wound. The officer was from Cologne. His name was Paul.
My father’s injuries cast a shadow over the rest of his life. Never again could he do a man’s job. But any occupation not calling for physical strength he judged demeaning. Work was infrequent and unsatisfying, including heartbreaking spells trying to sell the Golden Knowledge encyclopaedia. It was impossible during the 1930s to persuade enough people to invest in the full twelve volumes. Mother remembered with bitterness watching the daily humiliation of a man who could not make a living wage for his family.
A set of the encyclopaedia found its way to our home, and it was a rare treasure-trove of information for my three siblings and me, full of gorgeous coloured photographs and wonderful pictures of bisected toads and fish. In the mid 1930s my father suffered another blow. The tiny family income had been supplemented by a pension for his war wound. The government needed to cut spending. His war pension was reassessed and cut. The justification was that his health problems were considered not to be ‘attributed’ to his war wounds, but to have been ‘aggravated’ by them. He went to war as a healthy sixteen-year-old and he was shot. Aggravated? The family slumped from poverty to dirt poverty.
James Flynn Centre
The injustice of this decision was grievous. It happened in the week of Armistice Day. With tears in their eyes, the great and the good stood in eternal tribute to our war heroes, many of whom passed up unnoticed, unemployed, wounded, cheated and robbed of hope. My father’s brother Miah shared his First World War years in the trenches. He recalled how he and his comrades-in-arms lived in a shed on the edge of no man’s land. ‘Every night there was heavy shelling. We were terrified. All we had in abundance was cigarettes and booze. So we drank too much and chain smoked,’ he told us. Miah left the army broken and shell-shocked. My father died of lung cancer in 1940.
In April 2009 I gave a great yelp of joy when I received a letter from the Red Cross in Geneva. The Red Cross has an archive of prisoners of war in Germany in the First World War. A simple request to their HQ had been answered with precise details of the four prisoner of war camps where he spent most of 1918. I thought this information had been lost forever. The family anecdotes had indicated that my dad was captured on the Somme in 1914. The Red Cross proved that he actually endured three and half years in the front-line. He was shot and captured on 10 April 1918. That day was very significant. For the first time the Germans broke through the front line in Flanders at Ploegsteert Wood. Thousands of British and Australian soldiers were killed. The Germans held the area until September.
My father had always been always grateful for the surgery that saved his leg. The Red Cross document proved the truth of other parts of family folklore. There was a military hospital in his first prison camp at Limburg where he was listed in May 1918. He spent time in a second POW camp at Giessen near Frankfurt, and two others at Parchim and Gustrow in the far north of Germany. My brother Michael has a stock of old post cards that he inherited when my father’s brothers and sisters died. The cards are of First World War vintage. One is captioned ‘Ready for transport prison camp Gustrow’, and shows a group of British and French prisoners arriving at the camp. My father had collected these images of one of the places where he was held as a prisoner of war. The Red Cross had solved another puzzle.
There is a wealth of information on the web about the German advance on 10 April and even photographs of the camps and the hospital where my father was treated. The Flemish town of Ploegsteert (know as Plug Street to our troops) has honoured the war dead with a fine memorial. The last post is played on the first Friday of every month. Many of the names on the memorial are of soldiers who were killed on the day my father was captured.
I visited the Ploegsteert memorial on a beautiful spring day in 2009. It was a moving experience to follow the paths trodden by Machine Gunner James Flynn. He and his comrades suffered danger, cold and squalor forfour years from 1914 to 1918. The names of thousands of Welsh soldiers are remembered. But for a stroke of good fortune and the intervention of a compassionate German officer, my father’s name would also have been carved in stone in Ploegsteert and my family and I would not have existed. The shame of his suffering in war, the legacy of his wounds and his premature death are a spur of anger that drives my parliamentary work now.