Tuesday, 10 November 2009


Edward Dennis Deane was born in 1895 in Longparish, Hampshire. Growing up largely in the Greywell area - with interludes in the West Country (his father was an insurance salesman) - Den left school at 14, and took apprenticeship as a motor mechanic at Thorneycrofts in Basingstoke. He joined the Hampshire Regiment in 1914, at the age of 19, was sent for training as a private soldier in Ireland, and a year later was fighting in Gallipoli. He subsequently fought at Ypres, in Italy and on the Somme. And he survived.

Yet he did not 'survive to tell the tale'. It was a tale he wouldn't tell for 30 years. Like so many of his generation, he returned home after the First World War, got on with his life and never spoke about his experiences. He married his childhood sweetheart, my grandmother, Dorothy, and in 1922 joined the RAF, rising through the ranks to Squadron Leader, and serving in Iraq, Kenya and Egypt.

In 1928 my mother, Valmai, was born. During the Second World War, there was a five-year period during which Den, by force of circumstances, did not see his wife and daughter once.

I remember Grandad as a warm, loving, affectionate man, completely devoted to his little family and, later to his two grand-daughters. He left school young, yet was an intelligent man, self-taught, a devotee of Mozart, a voracious reader of library books. Even when his sight began to fail through diabetes in the last decade of his life, he struggled on with large-print books until he could manage no more and turned instead to Radio 4 for readings, plays and news programmes.

He was a great countryman. He knew much about plants and trees and animals. He loved dogs, and always kept one by him during his RAF years. He reared geese and goats and, after his retirement, he hurled himself into the cultivation of his large garden in Odiham. Vegetables, fruit and herbaceous borders were his specialities. He had a weakness for dahlias, of the sort which are deeply unfashionable now - the bigger and more gaudy the better. Yet he didn't much care for cut flowers. Flowers should be in the garden, not in the house, he always grumbled - but in a good-natured way, because his wife and daughter loved arranging flowers as much as he loved growing them. Cutting his sweet-peas and carrying them back in a trug is an abiding childhood memory.

In the 1960s I loved my weekly visits to my grandparents' home in Odiham, and later their retirement bungalow in Old Basing. Apart from the wonderful gardens to play in, there was Grandad's potting shed - a haven of weedkiller, grass-seed and creosote, scythes and dibbers and shears, pots, hosepipes and dried-out bulbs and tubers (a health-and-safety nightmare by today's standards, but my playroom for many a long afternoon).

And also Grandad's workshop. Having spent his youth in a mechanic's garage, Den loved to tinker with cars - latterly his shiny black A30, with its fragrant leather seats - such a poignant smell - and endearing little 'trafficators' (I think they were called). He was very keen on woodwork and the new and exciting concept of 'do-it-yourself' caught his imagination. He was forever 'improving' and 'modernising' pieces of antique furniture - a practice many would come to regret, but it kept him busy and he didn't ever get his hands on anything priceless. He made great pull-along trucks for my sister and me, recycling old chairs and drawers and assorted odd wheels. His workshop smelled of French polish, linseed oil, paint and petrol. I loved it.

A few years before his death, Den shut himself away for several days in his study and wrote these memoirs. He had no notes or diaries to refer to. He had kept nothing from those days save photographs. The dates and times, the names of people and places - all had been ingrained upon his memory.

I have transcribed them here from his handwriting as best I can. He had beautiful copper-plate writing, and it is generally easy to decipher, but some names and other odd words have eluded me. Since I wish it to be a faithful copy, I have not expurgated some words which strike one now as shocking - nor glossed over the sentiments reflected in his use of these words. Den was a man of his times: he was fiercely patriotic; in Africa and the Middle East he treated the 'natives' with, I like to think, respect (he always spoke very highly of the men of King's African Rifles - admired their discipline and determination), yet not as equals; he was deeply conservative and loathed the fashions and music of the 1950s and 60s - he would always wear a collar and tie, even when gardening; he was a Methodist and had a simple, unquestioning Christian faith, but his God was an Englishman through and through. He never failed to stand for the National Anthem, and would have defended the King (or later the Queen) with his life. I loved him dearly, and I understand entirely how and why he held the views that he did. That I do not necessarily share or endorse those views does not make me love him less.

These memoirs are not literary or poetic. They describe great horrors in plain language - language which often seems quite inadequate to the task. He doesn't attempt to convey great feeling - he simply sets out the facts. The numbers of dead. His best mate being shot beside him. The details are left to us to fill in - we've read the poems, seen the documentary footage and the photographs, watched the movies, read Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks and all the rest.

In spite of its simplicity - perhaps because of it - I find the First World War account quite painful to re-read. That his language does not express any great depth of anguish and horror makes it all the more poignant. Just as he and his fellow soldiers had at the time no means of even beginning to explain, on their return from the Front, what they had witnessed and taken part in, so at the last, thirty years later, Den can only begin to record it for posterity. This, and no more. It was as far as he could go. The bare testimony of an ordinary man, who did an extraordinary job, survived it all, told no-one anything about it, then wrote it all down and died in old age.

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