Saturday, May 22, 2010

Margaret Egerton: The Great War

Knitting socks for soldiers during WWI.
Photo from Creative Commons 
I was born in 1910. My father was a groundskeeper and chauffeur for a rich Clevelander, who had a walled estate at the top of a hill that became known as Cleveland Heights, which was a fast-growing suburb east of downtown Cleveland. My mother hated her exile from England and finally convinced my father to return. We sold our home and purchased tickets for the crossing. Unfortunately, these plans were made without any forethought about the war until after the sinking of a passenger ship caught in the German blockade surrounding the British Isles. My father was still an English citizen, and as soon as he reached England he would have been drafted into the army and taken into the trenches in France. He therefore canceled his ticket, and in 1915 mother, my brother, and I sailed for “home.”
My memories of living in England are vivid but fragmentary. Adult discussions about the danger from the enemies were pervasive. The huge German airships known as zeppelins were invented during the war to carry bombs to English cities, and during the frequent air-raid warnings we would scamper into hallways and safe havens away from windows and shattering glass. I remember sitting in a movie looking at time-lapsed photography of beautiful flowers with their petals opening up when the words “Air Raid Take Cover” flashed on the screen.

During the blackout, shops used blinds to keep light from shining out. I remember seeing the small OPEN sign in a shop window as we walked by. That was one of the first words I learned to spell.

I remember the war bond rallies in Trafalgar Square, where Red Cross ambulances that had rescued the wounded from the trenches were on display, parked around the lions. The trucks were tattered, with bullet holes and bloodstains.

Dad wrote to us faithfully but his letters were censored and only a few were delivered. He often sent me the “funny page.” I remember Mother reading “Mutt and Jeff” and “Dolly Dimples” to me from a U.S. newspaper.

I remember standing with her in a building and talking to refugees from Belgium. Talk about atrocities committed by the invaders of that hapless country created great fear of the enemy and much prejudice of the “Huns.” I remember visiting my grandmother, who was living in Chelsea with her daughter, my aunt Nellie. My grandmother, Caroline Annie Purkis, lived to be almost one hundred. At the time we visited she resided in a big feather bed with a canopy and a footstool, which I climbed when I visited her. She wore a little white flannel cap on her head with her straight hair parted in the middle. The strings of the cap could be tied under her chin, but when I saw her they were loose and on top of her cap. I remember saying to her that she looked like a German wearing his helmet shaped with a metal point on top. My grandmother was a gentle old lady who gave me lots of hugs, but she was very angry with me when I called her a German Hun.

As soon as the German blockade was lifted, ships began taking shell-shocked American soldiers back to the United States. We sailed home with the soldiers, who entertained me and the only other little girl on the ship. It was a lark to be so spoiled with attention. I remember eating half an orange with great relish, as it was the first time I had enjoyed fresh fruit since leaving the States.

What delight I had in celebrating the Armistice on November 18, 1918, waving my American flag and ringing the bell attached to the handlebars of my tricycle as I pedaled up and down Amesbury Avenue. It was an exciting and happy time.

But living in a war torn society had left lasting impressions. My mother had suffered too long the anxiety of separation from my father and had severe headaches from which she never fully recovered. I must have absorbed a lot of her anxiety. I had trouble going to bed alone in the dark. A lighted candle was beside my bed, but frequently it was extinguished, and when I awoke in the dark I remember pleading with my parents to let me join them at the foot of their bed. It was many years before I overcame my fear of sleeping in the dark, and now I use a nightlight.

No comments: