Out of the trenches

By
October 14, 2015 20:15

We still have the original telegram, a precious family heirloom.




Letters

Letters. (photo credit: REUTERS)

It was just 100 years ago that Raphael, my father, was wounded on the front line.

He had volunteered for the armed forces and, as he was tall and well built, he was conscripted into the infantry, into the Guards, who were sent to the western front after initial basic training at headquarters.

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It was World War I, and in October 1915 my father was in the trenches with his many comrades in the vicinity of Namur in Belgium. It was a forward posting and one fine and dreadful day a heavy shell came whistling over from the enemy side, landed nearby and exploded by his trench, and a large piece of shrapnel bounced his way and became embedded in his back. A smaller piece also hit my father in the side of the head and caused considerable bleeding, but little damage or pain. The back wound was worse. It was rather extensive, had taken out a chunk of flesh and my father was in great pain. He was taken off to the nearby field hospital for immediate treatment. There he was put to bed, heavily dosed and efficiently looked after by a young Jewish volunteer nurse called Tilly.

She was able to send off a postcard to his parents in the capital, who were naturally most concerned to hear his news. They thought that he would receive better care and treatment if he could be transferred to a hospital in the capital. They pulled strings but to no avail, so they sent his youngest brother to the front to see if that could be arranged. Eric was still under military age but he was a clever youngster and managed to travel in mufti to the front with some of the troops.

He made extensive inquiries, managed to locate the field hospital where my father lay, arranged for entry (it was, strictly speaking, illegal) and there he found my father in bed. The meeting was ecstatic on both sides, and Eric wrote back to the parents to say that my father had a head wound that was not too serious, and a more severe back wound for which he was being treated.

His telegram read, “Raphael only lightly wounded, am coming home with him in two or three weeks, am staying in military quarters camp.” We still have the original telegram, a precious family heirloom.

Eric, a clever young man, really just a teenager and well below military age, had been able to contact my father’s unit and his officers, and had got them to agree to let him be taken home briefly and then to a hospital in the capital, together with his nurse.

The officers saw that it would relieve them of a wounded junior comrade and make space for others. Eric was able to arrange for his brother to be brought on a stretcher to the city by car and train and he traveled back with him and his nurse, Tilly. There was great rejoicing when he got home, and his parents and their doctor had him placed in a regular city hospital, where he received first-class treatment while retaining the personal services of nurse Tilly. His back, at the left shoulder, was carefully and partially reconstructed and he lay under anesthetic for long periods.

My father had to spend a year in bed in the hospital while the back wound slowly healed. Tilly was a conscientious nurse and the family all thought that she and my father would get married after the war, they were so close. But in the end it did not happen, as Tilly fell in love with one of my father’s brothers, who came to visit him from time to time. After the war Tilly married Raphael’s younger brother.

(It must be admitted that the brother was better looking and more chipper.) By late 1916, Daddy had recovered sufficiently to be allowed to leave hospital. He was still suffering, was discharged from the army and spent the rest of the war recuperating at home. That he was allowed to be at home was a great blessing for him and his loving parents, who had sufficient worries as they had three other children still at the western front.

My father took to studying the great old masters of painting (up to the Impressionists), aspects of fine historical china and delicate eastern porcelain.

His uncle had started a business in that field of art before the war, and my father wanted to join him. He visited all the fine art museums and galleries in the capital and attended many of the lectures there. He was hoping to help my uncle with his newly-acquired expert knowledge and become a partner in the firm after the war. He also learned to play the piano and was able to join friends and relatives in chamber music concerts held at family celebrations.

His recuperation had positive advantages, which enabled my father to carry out studies that he had not had the opportunity of picking up elsewhere as, because of the war, he had not had the advantage of attending university.

He always regretted not having had that formal element of education, but in fact he taught himself what he needed, and to a greater degree than he could have gained at university.

Eventually he did become a partner in his uncle’s fine art business, which happened when the firm moved to the capital in 1919. There my father worked as an art dealer for many years. He spent a lot of time at auctions and his clients included the Rothschild family, who later commissioned him to assess their famous collections at their country house in Waddesden, for death duty purposes. His hard-earned expert knowledge was able to match that of the tax assessors and in many cases he was able to override their valuations.

We all spent a year, while Daddy made his assessments, living in the vacant village vicarage at Waddesden. My wife and daughter were quartered there with my parents, because I was away doing my National Service in the British Army in the Royal Engineers in Germany.

My father was happy working in Waddesden and later in London. He was among fine, sympathetic colleagues and other tolerant people. They may have been the nation that had fought him in the trenches and given him that serious wound from which he continued to suffer, but now they were his friends and neighbors. He still had this major back wound, one from which he probably died 40 years later, but Britain was now his home and, after the sickening and dreadful Nazi anti-Jewish rulings of 1933, he never, went back to Berlin.

The author is a Senior Fellow at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.


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