A Casualty of the Great War?

S&C Contributing Editor John Oke Bartlett revisits a family mystery of war, trauma and Christmases past.

Nana didn’t talk much about life with her first husband Victor Nash. According to my parents’ marriage certificate, Victor had been a director of a London wine company. He volunteered or was called up for the Great War, which he survived.

Amongst the remaining pictures of him is a typical group shot with other members of his platoon and others of him posing in his army uniform standing next to Nana, who is seated. The standard format of photography at the time required the sitter to stand very still, which produces a rather formal, inflexible image. Here Victor looks like he’s trying to be as nonchalant as possible, but both he and Nana look ill-at-ease.

Nana was reticent about this period of her life so there’s little to tell, just tantalizing snippets. From what I can recall, there was certainly a plethora of alcohol available at her house, as you’d expect from someone who’d run a wine company. A small cask of whisky was always kept under the stairs; the tap leaked a little and the drips were caught in a small white porcelain dish suspended on a silver chain. The family had a Jack Russell, with a patch over one eye, who always looked inebriated on account of his habit of licking up the contents of the drip tray.

At Christmas time there were stories of bottles and bottles of champagne keeping cool in the water-filled bath. The festive season was festive indeed, everybody wore fancy dress and, as far as I can tell, the same costumes were worn from one year to the next. I don’t know what happened to it, but there used to be an old battered black and white photograph of everybody in their festive finery; clowns and fairies were the order of the day.

Many years later, jolly Uncle Roy would come down from London at Christmas and thrill everyone by bashing out dance tunes on the piano. After Roy died I had the task of sorting through his house in Broadstairs and one of the artefacts I discovered was an old fashioned corkscrew, the sort with a turned wooden handle and little brush for wayward fragments of cork in one end. The brush has long since perished leaving the hole where it used to be. Roy was teetotal so I wonder if this relic from the past once belonged to Victor. I shall never know but I treasure it all the same.

Late one night, not long after World War I was over, Victor unexpectedly arrived home from the trenches. The house erupted into turmoil; he was home and he was safe. Once the initial surprise had abated, the practicalities of accommodation had to be addressed. On account of the lice that covered him from head to foot, on his first night home Victor refused to sleep in the house, preferring the shed instead. I suspect even a humble shed was a luxury compared with the horrors of the trenches.

Some time later – I don’t know how long – Victor committed suicide. By taking his own life he denied my mother and her siblings their father. He was much loved by my mother and she didn’t know of his suicide until she was an old lady herself. Even after all those years had passed I remember her being visibly shaken when the truth finally came out. I have no idea why he did it. Perhaps it was to do with his experiences, maybe a feeling of guilt that he had survived the war whilst many of his comrades had not, or was it delayed shell shock? Anyone who might have known is now dead.