When it comes to the whole picture of why I made the disastrous decision in a past life to enlist in the British Army during the First World War, I’ve always been at a loss.
The only thing that has come through clearly as far as memories for my motives is that I felt like Lord Kitchener reminded me of my father on those recruiting posters. While it seems silly to us nowadays, it bears remembering that I was from a very sentimental generation.
I now know from records that my father was alive at the time (which made sense because I had no specific memory of his death, unlike my mother). However, he died some time before or around the end of the war and unless his grief at losing me was so immense that it struck him down while he was still strong, it’s reasonable to assume he was in ill health. He would have been about sixty at this point, which was getting on in years for a Victorian skilled tradesman.
Even so, the more I think about it the more I feel that even my affection for my ailing father was the motive I felt superficially, I strongly suspect there was more to it.
I have not confirmed this, but I have an extremely strong intuition that my father had been a soldier before retiring to civilian life some time before 1880. Even though these uniforms had been retired by the time I enlisted in 1902, I keep having flashes of scarlet coats. Perhaps these were dress/parade uniforms but I feel that this was a regular British Army uniform of the type worn from Crimea to the start of the Boer War, with the pith helmet and everything. I wouldn’t have had one of those.
As often happens in military families, I probably enlisted because I had a father who had served. I also believe (though I have not yet confirmed this) that my brother Albert also enlisted. In fact I seem to remember that Albert had enlisted first and I had followed after because I didn’t want to miss out and because I wanted to stay with my brother and look after him.
There was more to that, though. I keep getting flickers and flashes of Victorian orientalism, of engravings of thick jungles over ancient Hindu temples, curious native rituals, and books embellished with accents of stylized banana leaves. It comes through thick when I listen to the French impressionist composers for some reason (maybe it’s their orientalism that does it). I think that I was sold from a very young age on the adventure of colonialism, and that I had wanted to go to India on an adventure since I was very young. Also, at the time I was working in a skin yard in Ledbury and living in a boarding house; I was hoping for a better job.
Incidentally, I also think I had read a lot of pulp fiction about cowboys, which was in circulation even in England by the 1880s. I think this may have had something to do with why I showed up in America in my next human life. If I’d survived the war I’m sure I would have tried to travel to America to see what was left of the wild west.
I served an unremarkable twelve years with the KSLI, first in India (1902?-1910?) then as a reservist living in Hereford until the first half of 1914. During this time I had my conduct stripe awarded and stripped from me several times, my pay docked, and my rank held at private. I was not what you would call a model soldier.
I can probably never confirm this, but I think part of the reason I did so poorly is because I “went native,” in the imperialist lexicon; that is, I started taking on some cultural traits that were looked down upon as “oriental.” The chief thing I believe changed was that I began to adopt Eastern ideas into my religious landscape; although nominally a Christian (raised staunchly high-church Anglican, if I remember correctly), I took on beliefs such as reincarnation. I also suspect I used hashish on more than one occasion.
While these things didn’t cause me to get disciplined, they led to the perception that I was morally weak and I think my sergeant singled me out for scrutiny as someone who might step out of line. I’ve had a phobia about being singled out this way in my current life too, and I suspect Phil may have had the same.
Upon my return to England, serving as a reservist, I feel like I had very little in the way of a civilian life. I also feel like I had disappointed my father by not being a better soldier. I had very little actual work to fall back on; I remember trying to learn a posh accent to try to get ahead but I don’t think it ever helped. I did seasonal work, picking hops in the late summer. I did whatever I could but I was still living with my father, unmarried (I do not believe I was the same John Harris who married Margaret) and with no real occupation.
By the time the war broke out, I think part of why I enlisted was because I hardly had a civilian life. I fell back on what I knew. But also, I think the fact that I had served poorly in a cushy sector had left me feeling like I’d failed as a soldier. I wanted to show my father that I had the mettle to step in as an infantryman at the Western Front. When I saw that mustached face pointing sternly at me, I felt the urge to prove myself to my father so strongly that I made up my mind then and there, I was going to re-enlist. But the evidence is pointing more and more to this not being a spur-of-the-moment decision, and I feel somewhat relieved.
I also think that Albert and I re-enlisted around the same time though I’ve yet to confirm this. I feel strongly that I enlisted first this time. At least I have reason to believe I didn’t get us both killed; Albert, from the best evidence I have, survived his wounds and went on to have a family and live on into the 1970s.
All the same, I think it’s remarkable that I went back into the army knowing full well what was waiting for me. I knew what the machine guns and artillery were capable of, and I must have known that if we weren’t able to advance that things must have gotten very serious. I now suspect that I knew I was going to die, or that there was a very good chance of it, and I went anyway because I couldn’t live with not making something of myself after my army service. I was completely sold on dolce et decorum est pro patria mori and hoped that I’d at least die a glorious death if I hadn’t lived a glorious life.
It wasn’t glorious. I proved my mettle well enough; I survived Ypres hiding the gaping wounds in my psyche. When they killed me, I was already too far gone to survive much longer in that environment. I don’t know what condition my body was in but it must have been pretty rough. I literally never knew what hit me; I’m just thankful it was quick and painless.
The only pain I ever felt was those invisible wounds. They’re still there, and after my experiences over the last three and a half years they’ve been re-opened in a big way. Sometimes just letting myself feel again is the hardest thing to do. I can go through periods when I feel so emotionally numb that I doubt my humanity. I still get defensive when I don’t have to be. I still go through periods when I’m super avoidant of anything that might make me think of the war and I want desperately to have a normal life without this interruption. I feel sorry for my fiance sometimes, having to tread so lightly in conversation to keep me from needing to quietly excuse myself or change the subject hastily to keep those thoughts at bay.
I’ve learned to cope a little, but it will be a very long time before I’ll feel properly healed; it’s taken me multiple lifetimes to come to terms with it. I think the hardest thing is not judging myself too harshly for throwing caution to the wind and rushing in when I saw my comrades in arms needed me. I have to keep reminding myself that this was probably something that developed over time and almost certainly wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision.
I also try to remind myself that it’s okay to feel again, even if the emotions are strong and unpleasant… though that’s almost as hard as not kicking myself for going in the first place.