1937: The Clouds of War (3)

Imagine that it is the height of a glorious summer, in southern Derbyshire in 1937. My Dad, Fred Knifton is only 14. One day, with his friends, Jonty Brearley, Bernard Swift and John Varty, he sets off to cycle through the Anglo-Saxon village of Hartshorne, to explore the old Stone Age trackway of Green Lane. By the time they get there, it is the late afternoon of a glorious summer’s day.

Last time, we saw the arrival of PC Bstard on his bike who forbids the four Boy Scouts to camp on common land at the side of a public footpath several miles from the nearest house. Sadly the boys did not rise up and drive off this sad servant of the bourgeoisie but instead promised that they would leave before nightfall.

Their brightly burning campfire gleamed in the dusk:fire

The boys, still filled with their spirit of youthful adventure, sat happily around the dancing flames. They roasted the sausages they had brought wrapped in grease proof paper in their saddle bags:


They toasted bread which was nothing like the bread we are told to enjoy nowadays. They made cups of scalding hot tea. And then, as night grew so dark that they could hardly see either each other or the bats which flickered through the invisible branches of the barely visible trees, they packed up all their things into the panniers on their bicycles.  Slowly but purposefully they cycled back under the stars through the warm summer darkness to the continuing years of their lives.

Fred was to say many times afterwards, that all four of those happy boys went off to the Second World War, but only two were destined to survive that awful conflict. Bernard Swift and himself.

John Varty was killed in 1943 in Tunisia, fighting ferociously against Germans who claimed every single sand dune as their own.  Corporal Varty is buried somewhere out there. Somewhere on the road to Teboursouk. Somewhere where his mother and father never had the money to go. Somewhere where nobody with any sense would dare nowadays to go. A country where only the dead are beyond killing:

Jonty Brealey was killed on June 27th 1944, in some long forgotten episode in the aftermath of D-Day. He was buried, along with more than 4,000 others, in Bayeux Cemetery in Normandy. He died to liberate France but for the first 25 years of his life, I can’t imagine that he had ever seen a Frenchman. Or a German come to that.

When I was a little boy in the 1950s, my Granny and Grandad lived two houses up the road from the Brealeys.  Jonty’s father, whose first name was Alf, was by now an old man. He spent all of the day leaning over his front gate, saying hello to passers by and keeping his eyes open for people coming down the hill from the main bus stop on High Street. I thought as a child that he was looking for anybody who might come past, but I now realise as a man, that he was waiting patiently for just one special person who, alas, would never come.




Filed under History, Personal, Wildlife and Nature

31 responses to “1937: The Clouds of War (3)

  1. Pierre Lagacé

    My paternal grandmother’s sister Alice waited for her son Adrien to come home.

    • As a little boy I never realised the real truth, because the old man seemed completely normal, but now I understand. I’ve read that thinking you have seen the dead person distantly in a crowd is also a common reaction. With luck, father and son will be reunited now.

  2. The early years beautifully conjured up, John; with an aptly timed tribute to those who didn’t come back

  3. What a sad sorry about Alf at the end there. I imagine that there are many parents who are that way after the loss of a child.

    • I think there must be. I am currently doing researches about the young men from the school where I used to work who went off to war and never came back. I’ve even found a couple of women who lost their son in WW2 after apparently having their husband killed in WW1. It’s a pity the people in charge never have to face such horrors.

  4. John, I wonder what awaits us with the growing threat of another world war?

    • Hopefully it will never come about, but I worry that the USA doesn’t seem to understand the Russians at all. They keep converting the countries around Russia to NATO membership, however many thousands of miles they are away from the Atlantic, and then putting missiles close to the Russian border, The Russians feel extremely threatened by this. They are the ones who had 20,000,000 war dead and they know all about war. The whole situation could be avoided if the smaller countries were declared neutral and had no missiles on their soil. The same, of course, could be done in other continents.

  5. John, It has been a while since I have been to an RSL room on a Friday night. But on Friday nights (and on ANZAC Day all over Australia people stop and recite the ode.
    “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
    At the going down of the sun and in the morning
    We will remember them.”
    Now too many of the clubs are huge poker machine clubs and nobody knows what it all meant.
    Thanks for that wonderful picture you painted of Alf, and every other Alf that ever was.

    • Thank you very much for that. If it’s any consolation, I think that the Australian government does far more than most countries to remember its war dead, The emphasis on the individual casualty at the Australian War Memorial is splendid. Perhaps consideration should be given to televising that every night on one of, no doubt, 501 satellite channels.

  6. A very moving and poignant post John. The vision of Alf waiting for Jonty to come home reflecting many scenes where parents, brothers, sisters and sons also stood in the hope that one day, their loved one will also return.

    • Thank you. I don’t think that anybody realised what Alf’s real motivation was. He was, to them, a pleasant old bloke who, by chance. lived half way up the hill to the shops, so he got a lot of people stopping to chat to him on the way up and then saying a cheery “See you, Alf” as they returned downhill, back to their tea and biscuits with their newspaper. As paolsoren remarks above, though, there have been just too many ‘alfs’ across the world.

  7. Good post John. Poignant observations!

    • Thank you very much. There were far too many men killed in each of the wars in our village which had only 3,000-4,000 inhabitants. There were 123 killed in WW1 and 33 in WW2.

      • Earlier this year in France in every village I was struck by the disproportionate size of the military graveyard to the number of people living in the village.

      • French casualties were gigantic, much more than ours. I read somewhere that from 1920-1928, or roughly that, somewhere in France, a different village was dedicating its new war memorial every single day. The French lost so many men in WW1 that there are still areas, particularly in the south and the centre of the country, which have remained unfarmed wilderness since 1918. The same can be said of Newfoundland which lost a huge proportion of its menfolk in one particular attack in the Battle of the Somme. The First World War was an unmitigated disaster for Western Europe with countless brilliant young men slaughtered for little or no reason. I could not be classified among Jeremy Corbyn’s admirers by the wildest stretch of the imagination, but his recent verdict on WW1 of “What is there to celebrate?” says it all for me.

      • There has been an interesting series on TV recently (The History Channel I think) called ‘World War One in numbers’ which has been through the war years revealing the most appalling statistics especially in respect of casualties.

  8. Chris Waller

    A poignant story. The generations of our parents and grandparents were blighted by war. Our generation has, thus far, been a blessed generation, We have never been embroiled in a war, we have benefited from the NHS which, for all its faults, has spared us the ravages of polio and chronic ailments – something for which I will be eternally grateful. I say ‘thus far’ since I had hoped to see out my term on this mortal coil without a global conflagration but that is looking less of a safe bet at the moment.

    • Don’t be too worried, Chris. I’m sure that the President knows exactly what he’s doing. And Mr Putin is over 60 so he’ll not be here for too long either. And the Chinese don’t conquer places by military action. They buy them!

  9. It’s a sobering thought that two out of the four friends never came back from the war.

  10. This is one of my favourite posts that you have written John. Damn onions.

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