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Beryl May-Wheeldon

This article was submitted by Dan Wheeldon of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Canadian Agency, in Ottawa. His grandmother, Beryl May-Wheeldon, served in the first World War and had three sons overseas in the Second World War. These excerpts were taken from her autobiography

"My grandmother's diary describes two wars.

In today's vernacular the First War, the Great War, was up close and personal for my grandmother. She experienced first hand the metamorphosis of Britain and the bloody tragedy of warfare."

The month of August 1914, was a transformation. The response of all the wonderful Quixotic fools who laid their lives on the altar of a sacrifice they did not even comprehend. A thousand and one motives led them to the slaughter – from a sense of fair play which found it impossible to stand by and see a bully wreak his will on a small nation; in others a sheer love of adventure, or a sheeplike desire to do as others did; to a deep conviction, fostered by propaganda, that this was a war to end wars. Within a month the heatherclad slopes of Frensham Common became a sea, on which a fleet of bell tents and marquees floated seemingly without end.

Country lanes rang with the treads of marching feet; the air was pierced with shouts of "old soldiers" – NCOs attempting to drill in too short order too variegated human material. The hours of darkness were disturbed by the sound of troop trains moving out of Borden Camp, bearing away those finished units which were the nucleus of that mighty horde which became the armies of the War of 1914-1918."

My grandmother experienced the loss of friends, and her first great love. With my great grandmother, who was now in her forties (my great grandfather had died before the war), they took a course in driving and motor mechanics with a view to signing on with the Red Cross as ambulance drivers. Once they received their driving certificates they were accepted as female drivers in Woolwich Arsenal, the first women in those positions. They subsequently responded to a French appeal for volunteers to go out to the French War Emergency Fund and, with the understanding that they could be called by the Red Cross at any time, were discharged from the Woolwich Arsenal and sailed for France in August 1917.

Near Christmas of that year they returned to England where they drove for the Green Cross until April 1918 when they were called up as drivers with the 41st Ambulance Car Company at Rouen, France.

". . . transportation of bodies from the mortuaries to the cemetery. In these days of terrific losses it was hard to keep pace with their removal, for wounded men had precedence. Coming down the line train after train must be evacuated speedily for fear of air attack in the vulnerable railroad depots. So that at times bodies lay a couple of days in the mortuaries. There was no refrigeration and the temperature was in the eighties."

She describes many events: driving through air-raids in the darkness unknowing whether the road ahead was still there or had been blown up; limping into camp with tires stuffed with hay when the supply of tubes had run out; the influenza epidemic, in which her car was one of the eight out of forty whose drivers were not incapacitated by the sickness which caused the death of so many who had gone through four years of war risks unscathed; and the harrowing funeral of a woman who had run across the front file of a draft of men and under the wheels of the ambulance she was driving.

At war's end my grandmother and great grandmother were serving with the 48th Company at Abbeville where she was again witness to enormous human suffering and tragedy. She describes the crash of two trains, one loaded with men returning for demobilization, which collided in a tunnel with terrific loss of life and many ghastly injuries to those who survived.

"They had come through four years of war and were on their way home – and this was the end. The look in their eyes is burnt into ones memories: "Sister, would you look in my tunic pocket – send word to the family," such were so often their last tragic words."

They both began to feel that they had had enough.

"In the week before demobilization . . . we went up through Arras, the Messines and Vimy Ridges, Ypres and along the Menin Road to Lille. One stood, breathless, before such devastation in the name of victory; steps down into the bowels of the earth where men had existed; mine craters beside Hill 60 and along the Menin Road with tanks and skulls of the men who had served them visible still through the mud – a sea of crosses 'on a foreign field' in the many cemeteries along the way; places too, along the Messines Ridge where the component parts of men's bodies had been collected and put into sacks labelled with the name of some soldier, though with no possibility of knowing whether they had all originated from the same victim of civilization."

In October of 1920 my great grandmother and grandmother sailed on the Caronia for Canada, settling in British Columbia where they could claim the advantages offered under the Overseas Settlement of British Women.

When the Second World War came around my grandmother

". . . knew that before this thing was over three of my boys must become entangled in its meshes. Though I still loathed the whole business of war, I did not shrink now from the thought of their involvement. What we were fighting against was sufficient to lull my pacificism."

Indeed three of her sons did become entangled: Tony, the oldest and my father; Dick; and Mac . . .

"In June (1944) came the dramatic announcement of the landing in Normandy. I suffered with the men as I had suffered at the time of Dunkerque. The place names – what memories they brought me."

"The new year dawned after a salutary reminder of the remaining strength of the Nazis. Dick, in the Navy was at Murmansk, but Tony and Mac were both in Belgium. Now and again I went to the show for diversion. But every boy in the news pictures was a Tony, Dick or Mac to me and I needed no reminders.

In February Mac was wounded in the fighting at Cleves. I was fully prepared. As I took the wire from the boy at the door my first impulse was of pity for the young bearers of so much tragic news.

"It's not too bad, Mrs W," he said nervously as I signed for the telegram. "It is no shock" I assured him, "One lives with this moment every day if one has boys over there."

That week was the longest I had ever lived. The wire had said "wounded" with promise of details later. I went about my work externally calm; but my last thought at night and my first in the morning were of Mac. Was he still whole? Was he suffering? He was only 19 - would he be crippled or maimed throughout his life? Could I reach him through my thought?

At last word came. His wounds were not too serious and he was progressing favourably. Suddenly I could absorb the news again, not merely read it; could hear the radio programs not merely listen to them; could go to sleep at night without concentrating on just that effort and could wake in the morning without a question on my mind.

The big push was on and tide of Nazi domination was being swept away at last. But, across on the battle fronts destruction continued. That last long heave was on, bloody, but motivated by a tremendous hope. Wives and mothers world over, sensing the end was near, were concentrated on a subconscious prayer that their men-folk might come safely through.

Something was cracking inside Nazi Germany. The deadly V2s with their macabre devastation, stiffened the milk of human mercy in allied nations breasts. Stories of incredible atrocities, substantiated now by proofs, hardened even the most pacifist. This thing called Nazism was some demented animal which must be destroyed.

At last the allied might swept on to victory. April 28. Rumours and conflicting stories had been bandied about, claiming collapse here, surrenders there during the past two days. The tension was terrific. Standing by my radio, dish towel in hand, I felt myself go goose flesh all over as the first announcement was made: "An ultimatum of 48 hours."

The mother in me uppermost, my heart cried out the hope that my boys might have come through. Nothing was certain; I was too much of a realist not to know that even now Tony might be dead: "Tanks had advanced under heavy fire." 'The Navy was assisting in the attack on the mouth of the river. Dick might be there. Mac, I hoped, was still at the Base after his wounds, but I could not be sure. Mathew Halton mentioned that there were now few casualties daily, a couple killed, perhaps a dozen wounded. Were mine among those few? Was it too much to hope that all three would come through? Fighting was going on, on "an hour to hour basis" the announcer said. Those poignant hours.

A week akin to sitting on a precipice followed. Day after day came conflicting announcements; confirmation too of the blessed fact that at least hostilities had ceased in western Europe.

Another week had passed – a week since all had stood breathless before impending news. Hitler was supposed to have died. . . . . it was announced that the British Cabinet was in session and that events "were rushing to culmination." But there was a sense of anti-climax now. It was over – that was obvious though – and it was Mother's Day for me and for millions like me! The official confirmation could add little to that.

Here and there were subdued parades – a few flags and favours, and bands playing, but for the most part people were in their homes savouring mixed emotions; joy foremost in the knowledge that their men-folk and those of others had heard the cease-fire; triumph that the appalling threat of Nazi domination had been crushed. But underneath again a nagging reminder for some of the bitter victory for which their men had fought but were not to share.

True, Germany had been beaten, crushed, humiliated and none could say that this humiliation was unjust. But who wins in a war anyway?

In loving memory of my grandmother
Beryl May-Wheeldon
The dewdrop slips into the shining sea
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