Grandpa Park

As the British State gets ready to celebrate the First World War, Bella welcomes this evocative family reflection…

Pride is perhaps the most difficult of the human emotions to rationalise. Pride in our family, in the scientific achievement of a long dead compatriot, in the burst nose of a bully who pushed once too much. All very different, yet all evoke a similar reaction. Pride in war is perhaps the most controversial. Undoubtedly, though, it’s something I felt it as a wee boy in Ayrshire when my Grandpa McLeod would regale me with tales of his role in the Battle of Crete.

It’s not wrong, it’s part of the entirely normal, and probably innocent, indoctrination sons and grandsons have had since the dawn of time: war is heroic, and to win in battle brings glory. He’d rhyme off the weapons he fired in the Commonwealth’s ill-fated, short-lived, defence of the island in 1941, “I fired Bren guns and Sten guns, three inch guns and four inch guns, all sorts of anti-aircraft guns,” amongst tales of waking officers as unexploded shells lay by their tents, and counting to ten in German.


Of course this was sanitised heroism for wide-eyed 1980s grandchildren – he never killed a German, or so the story went. The rest of the war, which to me seemed more Kelly’s Heroes than Stalingrad, was spent as a POW playing cards with boys from Glasgow across the camps of Europe, before being rescued by Uncle Sam in Italy, and wherever he is now, he’ll still be using the matches he won from his pals. Through the blue-grey haze of his roll-up smoke, I can see him now in his chair, his eyes smiling in reminiscence of the four years he spent in the midst of the largest war we’ve yet managed to get ourself into.

From the relative comfort of 21st century Western life, we look at seemingly impossible situations and wonder how past generations can at times reflect on them like they were nipping oot for a loaf – war was what happened, we got on with it. Perhaps when these situations present themselves, it’s human nature to make the best of them, and we’d do the same. Or maybe he didn’t think the POW camps were all that bad in comparison to the Anderston slum in which he grew up.

It was in the same house that I first heard tell of my great grandparents. At lunchtime from primary school I’d visit, where my grandmother, the first ravages of Alzheimer’s beginning to erode her memory, would occasionally ask, “Do you remember Grandpa Park?”, who died a few years before I was born. His heroism was something I didn’t quite understand, or certainly it wasn’t something I considered as glorious as that of my Grandpa McLeod. The Great War was far less exciting than World War II. It had no decent films, no Spitfires, and the photographs had an eerie, ghost-like quality to them through which I felt the hellish echoes of working class Victorian Scotland.

In his mid twenties when war was declared, John Park, my great grandfather, had moved from Ayr to Glasgow, where the patriotic call to arms of the First World War bugled from every newspaper and street billboard. Through the mirk of a century, and with a public which is arguably more aware of governments and their manipulation, even today this would stir all but the hardest of spirits. Your neighbours, your friends, your family, your football team are off to the trenches, and they need you tugs at the heartstrings, undoubtedly, and it’s little wonder so many volunteered.

Certainly the propaganda hasn’t changed in a hundred years: Tell the working classes an unjust war’s not about dying for the Duke of Buccleuch’s grouse moor or Halliburton’s oil but their neighbour and their country, and they’re a jolly sight more likely to volunteer, you see old chap. Despite being offered the fame of a victory swift and glorious over the dastardly Hun, it was a temptation my great grandfather managed to resist, and he was quoted at the time as saying how he would “not kill his brother man.”

A proto-Scottish nationalist, a socialist steeped in generations of Ayrshire tradition, hierarchical structures, pomp and ceremony, were dismissed, “The pope in Rome? The king of England?”, and he refused, until his dying day, to stand for God Save the King or Queen in the picture halls of the county. Then came his feather for ‘cowardice’ for refusing to enlist. “Tell them tae keep sendin’ them, Ah’ll mak’ a pilla” – the British Empire dismissed by the laugh of five foot Ayrshireman. Eventually, threatened with prison when conscription arrived, he signed up as a medic and helped those who needed it most.

As it marks a centenary since the outbreak of the Great War, it is time for the United Kingdom Government to issue an apology to the men who received their feathers. An apology not only for their attempted humiliation, or for sending their friends and their communities to massacre, but as a way of admitting, without saying it, that conscientious objectors to the Great War were right.

Earlier this year I wrote to both the Scottish National Party’s defence spokesman Angus Robertson MP, and Phillip Hammond, the Secretary of State for Defence, asking for such. Unfortunately, Mr Robertson was unable to assist me in the matter and, unsurprisingly, I received no response from Phillip Hammond. The great men in the great halls of power are still doing what they see fit, and that doesn’t seem likely to change.

It would, however, in light of my great grandfather’s reaction to his feather, be entirely wrong to become embittered by the MPs’ reaction. Come the celebration of the outbreak of the Great War, I’ll simply think of my ancestors who fought in wars for the good of mankind, and in the wars to perpetuate the greed and tradition of inbred, tweed clad dullards. I will of course have a white feather on my breast – Edwardian tool of humiliation, 21st century badge of pride.


Comments (18)

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  1. Les Robertson says:

    Thanks for your memories of a Grandpa Park. Wear your white feather with pride. I will be thinking of him and all the other brave men who refused to kill

  2. tartanfever says:

    Not only time for a Westminster apology, but an apology from the royal family, whose family ‘bust up’ proved to play a central role in cause of war.

  3. yesvote2014 says:

    Math fhéin. Nan cuireadh iad fiù ‘s ach latha seachad a’ tadhail air cladhan Ypres atharrachadh sin an inntinn.

    1. Catrìona says:

      No nan leughadh iad na th’ ann de dh’ainmean nam marbh air a h-uile carragh-cuimhne anns a h-uile baile beag air feadh na dùthcha ‘s nam faiceadh iad an call a dh’adhbhraich na h-urracha mòra.

      1. yesvote2014 says:

        Tha sibh glé cheart a sin.

  4. What a thoughtful meditation on the working class experience of war. My Granda Docherty fought in the Second World War. He was in the Irish Guards (“If you had an Irish name, they put you in there. Nae Irishmen would join up”) I suppose it was preferable to the irregular employment on Glasgow’s building sites.

    He was captured at Anzio, and was also a prisoner of war. He never discussed the war when he came back; he wouldn’t read books or watch movies about it. My mum said he used to go mad if she or her brother left any food on their plates, because they’d had so little. My Gran sent regular Red Cross parcels, but apparently they rarely got through.

    When he developed Alzheimers in the 1980s, he relived his time in the camp. He carried it with him all his life.

  5. mel spence says:

    What won’t be commemorated this year or any other, is that the highest casualty rate, 20%, wasn’t in the mud of Flanders, but in the African jungles and savannahs. One million Africans were conscripted as bearers in the African campaign that lasted from 1914 until after the Armistice was signed, 20% of them died.

  6. Auld Rock says:

    Very thought provoking and humbling. I’ve said this in my monthly column in ‘The Flag in The Wing – Scottish Independent’, “Whoever heard of commemorating the start of war, not any war but this one in particular. I’ve for a long time held that WW2 was actually WW1 Part 2.

    Auld Rock

    1. I’ve heard it said that there should be no minute’s silence, because the dead of WWI were betrayed by the fact WWII happened.

  7. Auld Rock says:

    Correction – ‘Flag in The Wind NOT Wing.

    Auld Rock

  8. Ruairidh Maciver says:

    What strength of mind and character this man must have had; heroism that sought no attention, but deserves it in abundance. His reply to the feather says it all: ‘Then came his feather for ‘cowardice’ for refusing to enlist. “Tell them tae keep sendin’ them, Ah’ll mak’ a pilla” – the British Empire dismissed by the laugh of five foot Ayrshireman. Eventually, threatened with prison when conscription arrived, he signed up as a medic and helped those who needed it most.’

    It doesn’t sound like your grandpa could have cared less about an apology from the Government, but that’s what’s needed here, for the sake of all those who had that moronic feather placed on their lapel (and there’s not many who could have fired back a response like that!)

    Lest we forget? Stories like this have been deliberately forgotten but should form part of our remembrance (celebration can go to he*l) this year of a war for which the vast majority bore no responsibility, but paid the price.

  9. bringiton says:

    Let us take the Westminster “inspired” commemorations at face value and remember the disproportionate number of Scots who died and were maimed in yet another UK pointless war.
    War is futile and seldom results in lasting change for the better but unfortunately still appears to be the option of choice for our governing elites when exercising their will to dominate.
    Most of the Scots who suffered and died in these wars would want us to seek a better way to deal with others in our world and not resort to violence as an option unless directly threatened.
    We owe them that.

    1. Ruairidh Maciver says:

      I agree.

      Let us remember my great-grandfather, one of 233 survivors from a complement of 780 on the HMS Formidable, when she was struck by two German torpedoes on New Years Day 1915. His corpse was revived by a dog in a makeshift mortuary. And his two brothers, both of whom died from TB contracted in a POW camp in Groiningen, where they spent the years 1914-1918. And two other great-grand uncles, one whose body is yet to be found in Mesopotamia, and another who drowned as a result of WW1’s final tragedy, the loss of the Iolaire, on New Years’s day 1919. But let us also remember John Park.

      Equally, we owe them that.

  10. oldbattle says:

    What an excellent piece of very personal yet intensely political writing from the shadows of a working-class life: a form of narrative that too often sits in the silence of the box-room or china-cabinet of memory ( or is parodied).
    Too much of ‘our’ history tells of the glories of the great-house generals ignoring the quiet dignity and struggles of life; struggles often against the chauvinism and arrogance of a British state whose long history is less than ‘ happy and glorious.’

  11. yerkitbreeks says:

    Your grandad was at one end of a spectrum – at the other were the Empire warmongers who, you remember, were the officers, and all English public school boys ( have you seen the film The Four Feathers ). Within these extremes were many thinking men – my dad fought in the Royal Artillery in the First War and refused to wear the medals given to him for the killings.

    In his 85 years I never once heard him be critical of his German foes, whom he regarded as honourable adversaries. Compare this to the rhetoric generated by our Hollywood inspired images of conflict ( inevitably the baddies have German or Arabic accents, never Jewish ) where good in the Establishment’s eyes squares up to bad in the Establishment’s eyes.

    It has always taken courage to square up to the Establishment, and so it is today. Isn’t it wonderful that we are currently governed by SNP officials who have a long track record of this, the opposite to the traditional Westminster trough seekers ?

  12. A Park says:

    Wow this is a great article and I wonder if I am related to him. I am from Ayrshire

  13. Jim Duffy says:

    This is a very good read my friend..

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