Grandfathers at War
28 April 2014
During a recent sort out, my mum found a small square of newspaper, cut out and neatly gummed onto a piece of glass cut to size. It had been sellotaped too, protecting the ink and turning the paper a deep golden-yellow, but before it was stuck down someone had penciled their name on it in three different places, as well as scratching their initials on the back. The date, handwritten alongside, is 28 June 1919.
The clipping is from the ‘London “Daily Express” Aeroplane Post’, and the headline is ‘Peace Proclaimed.’ You don’t get much of the story, but everything important is captured in sixteen words: ‘The Peace Treaty was signed by the Peace Emissaries of the Allied and Enemy Countries today’.
The penciled name is ‘R Mulley’. This was my grandfather, Richard Mulley, better known as Dick, then a fourteen-year-old boy with very tidy writing. He was clearly hugely aware of how momentous that day was, marking the end of what was then known as The Great War. Little wonder, since one of his older brothers had served in the Royal Navy and was twice on ships that were torpedoed – although amazingly he survived to run a toyshop in the peace. Dick’s deep sense of moment is captured both in the number of times he scribbled his name on the paper, and in his determination to write so neatly on this small keepsake of history.
I have very little that once belonged to my dad’s dad, although there are a few photos of his many naughty, handsome brothers and long-suffering sisters. I love the fact that this small plaque has survived, a memento of a boy who had clearly been following the war, and had a sense of history as well as of victory. It is also a memento of my father, who must have cautiously held this fragile square of paper and glass, just like I have, and wondered about the boy who grew up to become his father. These two men carefully kept this small cutting safe for ninety-five years.
My husband, Ian, has similarly precious little from his father’s father; in fact he has even less. However, as a child he did inherit his father’s stamp collection, which he carefully stuck in an album bought for the purpose in the 1960s, adding to it as he went. Looking at the individual stamps, however, some of these must have come down from another generation, from Ian’s father’s father, Reiner.
This album contains stamps from all over the world. The smaller the country, the more fabulous the stamp, my dad once told me, looking at his own childhood collection with me. The same is true here, but the most fascinating stamps in this album come from Ian’s grandfather and father’s birth-country; Germany.
Germany first issued stamps in 1872. Sadly there are none in this album from then, but there are two Germany pages, very neatly distinguishing stamps dating from 1949 which were issued in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, ie post-war Eastern Germany, and look suitably Soviet, from an older collection from the Deutsche Reich.
These Reich stamps are fascinating. The oldest, perhaps, is a pretty dark blue one showing a stylised hunting horn for a value of 6 marks. The collection quickly moves up in face-value however to 200, 400 and 500 marks. In the years after the First World War the value of the German mark fell rapidly, mainly as a result of reparation payments and the penalties imposed on German trade, combined with the depression. As the German government printed money, the country experienced rapid, debilitating inflation. German stamps in circulation were overprinted to reflect this. A pink stamp in the album that had been issued at a face-value of 500 marks, had been given a value of 250,000 marks in around 1923, while below it a paler pink 200 mark stamp is overprinted with a value of 2 million marks! Some of these stamps do not even look used, as though even when revalued in the millions they could hardly cover the cost of delivering a letter.
So while, as a lad, one grandfather, Dick Mulley, was cheerfully sticking his newspaper cutting on to some glass to keep it nice, another, Reiner Wolter was – possibly less cheerfully – not sticking stamps onto envelopes, but keeping them safe nonetheless, with a sense for preserving history that was just as keen as Dick’s.
So what happened to these two boys when they grew up? In the Second World War my father’s father, Dick, served as a chef in the navy, cooking Christmas dinner for 1,400 men one year; ie for two troopships. He survived the war, and later worked for the New Zealand Shipping Company. Story has it that one day, in a storm, he chopped his own thumb off but simply sewed it back and got on with dinner.
Ian’s grandfather, Reiner, was drafted too, but he was less lucky. There are several stories as to his end, but the one that seems most likely is that he was sent to the Russian Front, and died or was killed at Stalingrad, with so many others. We don’t really know. His widow, Ian’s beloved German grandma, fell in love again a few years later, with an English soldier based in the British-occupied zone of post-war Germany. They married, and although her older sons chose to stay in Germany, she brought her youngest son, Ian’s father, with her to England when her new husband was posted home. Very little came with them, no photos that we know of, but a few Christmas tree baubles and a small collection of stamps. And she sang wonderful German carols in their house at Christmas time.
So my children have great grandfathers who fought on both sides of that second terrible world war: men who were boys once, and collected small souvenirs of peace – little bits of gummy paper that still survive to tell us something rather wonderful about them, something about being aware of the zeitgeist that they might have recognised in each other.