We all lead such busy lives these days and tend to think that we are unique in the stresses and tensions we have to suffer. I’ve had my fair share of stress (and the associates ulcers and worse) during my business career. I’ve also known the nagging fear and dread as one of the baby-boomers who grew up under the shadow of the relentless spread of nuclear weapons. I still vividly remember those 13 days in October 1962 when Kennedy and Khrushchev went eyeball to eyeball over the Soviet missiles in Cuba. I held my breath with the rest of the world whilst we waited to see who would blink first. With the memories of countless, hypnotic newsreels of the awful mushrooming clouds crowding into my mind every waking minute, I could only think ‘I haven’t had my time yet’.
I never knew either of my grandfathers but it was always Joseph my father’s father who held most fascination for me as a youngster. This was probably because I had heard that, as a soldier, he went first through the Boer War and then ‘died of his wounds in the first World War’. Sadly, my knowledge of my paternal grandfather never went beyond those simple facts for much of my life until I had to clear out my mother’s house shortly before she died. I then discovered a small treasure trove of photographs, letters and all sorts of documents, amongst which was more information about the elusive Joseph.
It seems that Joseph was born on 27th February 1877 in Athy, County Kildare and was the 6th child to Joseph and Ellen Armstrong. Joseph (junior) followed in his father’s footsteps becoming a blacksmith and on his 20th birthday in 1897 enlisted in the British army (Ordnance Corps) for 7 years plus 5 reserve. Two years later he was shipped to South Africa . During his time in the Cape, Joseph received decorations and ‘mentions in despatches’ on two occasions and was ultimately awarded the DCM (at this time the highest award for ‘other ranks’). Although not an infantryman, he saw service in some of the most notable clashes of the war and was finally disembarked home on 28th August 1904 after 5 years active service.
In 1906 Joseph married my paternal grandmother, Winifred. The photograph above shows him in the same year as a member of the sergeants’ mess at Aldershot barracks, looking calmly and confidently into the camera, a man mature beyond his 29 years who had already seen much of the horrors of war. A year later in 1907 my father John Joseph was born, followed by a sister and brother in the next few years. Although an Irish national, Joseph had served his country, survived and was probably looking forward to the comforts of marriage and the fruits of a future civilian life. This was not to be.
1914 came and Joseph was once more called to war in the service of his country. There is a gap in his army records but a British Forces address records him as being in Salonika,Greece at some point in this period. The records next show his discharge in August 1916, after service of 19 years and 156 days as ‘Being no longer physically fit for war service’. Joseph had attained the rank of Staff Quartermaster Sergeant, left with a commendation from his commanding officer recording his ‘ cheerfulness and willingness under all circumstances being an excellent example to the men under his command’. Last month I discovered the final piece of the jigsaw with a copy of his death certificate obtained after a long internet search. A peaceful and fruitful civilian future was not for Joseph it seems; he died eleven months later of TB and toxaemia at the age of 41 years.
I have lived as a member of a privileged generation that (on this side of the Atlantic) have never had to answer the call to arms and never had to endure the horrors of war as a civilian living in our cities during ‘The Blitz’ of the second world War. Yes, I have lived with the threat of these things in the 60’s; I have lived instead with the comfort of the welfare state, with protected human rights, endless (personal) credit on tap, bountiful theories on leadership, teamwork and management to guide me. However, the worries and challenges of my business and personal life seem petty in comparison to my grandfather’s.
Joseph was not a giant of a man in a physical sense; his army records indicating a height of only 5’ 5½”. He was only ever ‘other ranks’ but he knew how to lead his men and tend for the horses and mules of his company. He must also have been a good and reliable follower to the officers who commanded him while he lived with the constant, gut churning fear of death ferrying munitions and supplies to the front line in countless, futile actions in ‘the war to end all wars’. He paid the ultimate price for his service to his country. I never knew my grandfather but I like to think of him now as the quiet, calm, confident man gazing out from that photograph of 1906 and think that I would have liked him.
RIP Joseph; you had a hard life.