Of Lice and Men

Did your Grandparents tell you War Stories?

Unless you have been asleep for a while, you will know that today is the centenary of the UK declaring war on Germany in what became the First World War. This declaration followed Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination 28th June in Sarajevo, with Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia 28th July 1914, Germany declaring war on Russia 1st August and then France 3rd August.

Both sides think it will be a short war with the German Kaiser Wilhem II declaring “you will be home before the leaves fall”. Instead, from November 1914 it increasingly becomes static, with trenches stretching eventually from the English Channel to the Swiss border.

Static armies have to be supplied and in Europe, the railways play a huge but largely forgotten role well explained in Christian Wolmar’s book Engines of War

Onwards but not Upwards

Previously, armies had to keep moving as having grabbed all the food in their location, they moved on to rape & pillage (or perhaps requisition supplies) somewhere else further down the road. Not much choice here – if you stayed in the same place, you starved. Without good roads, long supply lines driven by oxen & horses don’t work well, as with an ever-lengthening supply line, an increasing part of the cargo is to feed the animals which can’t pull their loads & die quickly without fodder. Enter the railways.

Talking of horses, the subject of my main story comes from my paternal grandfather, a Shoeing smith by trade who was kept very busy shoeing & reshoeing horses behind the lines – the ones that brought up the supplies. After the cavalry had taken the best animals, these horses were often unpleasant creatures, made worse by their being terrified of the bangs & explosions.

Of Lice and Men

Imagine a young couple recently married and hubby goes off to war, which turns out to be unlike any other. Slaughter is on an industrial scale and chemical weapons are used in large quantities for the first time. Showing perhaps that clouds have silver linings, chemical weapons eventually lead to the introduction of chemo therapy for cancer treatment – but I digress.

The Industrial Revolution which improved standards of living so much for the common man, was now devoted to producing machines and materiel to destroy it. The young wife at home goes to compline every day, praying for the safe return of her husband.

Hubby gets a pass to go home to his young wife, not having to a buy a train or bus ticket since soldiers in uniform don’t need one. After more than 24 hours travelling, he turns up his on own doorstep where you would expect the wife to throw her arms around his neck? Not at all.

Standing on the doorstep in his mud-spattered uniform with lice in his hair, he is shooed around to the scullery at the back and given a thorough scrubbing. No instant water heaters in those days and certainly no shower, granddad sits down in the proverbial zinc bathtub while the carbolic soap and scrubbing brush gets the lice and muck off him.

It’s All over now

War over, granddad is an itinerant blacksmith for a while, going from village to village looking for work. Later, he rents his own forge which business enables him to bring up 7 children. The business folds after WW2, where only a few weeks of trading show that the local blacksmith days are over. Both grandparents meet after the war when my parents are married. One of the nicer things of human nature is that old soldiers tend to get on well and it turns out the granddads were only a few miles apart at the Battle of the Somme, but of course on opposite sides.

If only I could show them my lovely grandchildren now….


George Emsden
Now retired, George is busier than ever: working through an OU Maths & Physics degree, blogs, volunteering at Muswell Hill Soup Kitchen and Haringey Winter Shelter plus being a very proud granddad.