There were films on TV every week and permanently showing at the cinema. Children’s comic heroes included mighty marine, Captain Hurricane and Braddock VC, who together could have ended the war within a couple of months, if their tales were anywhere near fact. Commando magazine, a small cartoon picture book, telling true tales of heroic actions was a must for us kids.
So it is with surprise that growing up against this backdrop, I didn’t ask my grandfather about the time he spent on the frontline and in trenches as a sapper in the First World War.
In fact, I never knew much about him at all, and it’s only in later years that I discovered about his life, let alone the time he spent in the fields of Flanders.
He died when I was nineteen, so I had enough time to find out more, but it never occurred to me then to ask what it was like when he was young; what his parents were like, or where he grew up. He wasn’t the type to say ‘when I was a boy’ or ‘during the war’, so I never asked him.
I can still draw him to mind, though. I remember his watery, pale blue eyes, the deeply etched creases below the hairline on his neck and his almost unnatural quietness. I never heard him raise his voice. He never indulged in any conversations and allowed everyone else to do the talking. Words from him were few and far between.
Recently, though, I’ve begun to learn a little more about the life of Robert Charles Hayman, as a young man, when he fought in the First World War with the Royal Engineers, during which he witnessed the horrors of trench warfare.
My older brother said my grandfather had told him he would take his time climbing out of trenches, and immediately drop to the ground when his comrades began to fall in front of him under gunfire. He would only get back to his feet when it stopped.
As a blacksmith by trade, I doubt he would have been crossing open ground towards enemy lines, as the majority of his time would have been spent working in the smithy keeping machinery running and horses shod.
So, according to my grandfather, he was no hero. No racing across open ground to capture enemy trenches single-handed. No mentions in despatches or medals for bravery. He was simply another soldier who did just enough to stay alive and was lucky not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If he actually did take his time climbing out of trenches or fall over under gunfire, it’s something I’ll never really know, because I never had that conversation with him.
Remarkably though, one thing he did during his time in and around the battlefields of Ypres was to put his name into the record books of that war. It wasn’t an act of courage, but like hundreds, if not thousands of his fellow soldiers, he picked up a memento of his time in Ypres. My grandfather’s ‘treasure’ was a little brass candleholder of no more than four inches high, which he took back to his home in Bristol during leave in August 1917 before going back into action in Northern Italy.
The candleholder, always polished and gleaming, stayed with him for the rest of his life. He told my mother he picked it up from the remains of a building he thought was a church. He said he always felt guilty about taking it and asked her to return it if she ever visited Ypres.
My grandfather never saw the candleholder returned. He never revisited the battlefields of Flanders in peacetime. He died in 1972 and following the death of my grandmother in 1988, the candleholder was passed to my mother, who in turn passed on to me the responsibility of returning it to the little Belgian city.
The response to my email to the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres about the candlestick and my grandfather’s wish was swift. Within hours I was discussing a date and time to visit the museum to hand it over.
Museum archivist Annick Vandenbilcke was surprisingly delighted with the latest addition to the ever-growing collection of returned objects from the First World War.
“Everything we receive has its own special importance, regardless of how big or how small,” she said.
“Since we opened the museum in 1998 we have received more than 250 private donations of war memorabilia and artefacts.
“Hardly a week has passed without the museum receiving some new bequest or gift.”
The donations are made by people from all over the world and more recently a striking number from Germany. Items range from faded, battered photographs right through to complete uniforms.
Ms Vandenbilcke said a great many of the objects the museum received were actually returning home.
“By May 1915 the civilian population of Ieper (Ypres) had been evacuated and the city was given over to the British Army, who lodged in the basements and cellars. It was inevitable they would go souvenir hunting in the ruins,” she said.
“Wood carvings, statues and small pieces of stained glass from the Cathedral or the Cloth Hall became cherished possessions after the war and have been lovingly cared for, for a lifetime. Now the descendants of those soldiers have decided the time has come for those items to make the journey back.”
So it was, for example, that a photograph of an anonymous Ypres family was finally returned to the city 82 years after it was originally removed by a British soldier.
The archivists are extremely sensitive to the emotional value and significance returned items have for their temporary owners and show great care in documenting the stories attached to each item.
Many of the personal stories linked to donated objects have been given a place in the ‘people’ kiosk in the museum.
In my case they copied my photographs of my grandfather during the First World War and in return were able to tell me about his regiment and the part it played in the rest of the war.
A visit to the fantastic museum gave me an insight into what my grandfather would have experienced and witnessed in the time he spent dodging the bullets and falling over on the battlefields of that terrible war.
I can’t begin to imagine what it was like to live in fear of your life or how he felt when one of his pals was killed in front of him. But I think I can now understand why he was such a quiet, gentle man.
Thanks to that little candlestick I learned more about my grandfather than I could have ever thought possible and I feel so proud I was able to include his name in the history books of the Belgian town of Ypres.
The In Flanders Fields Museum can be contacted by e-mail on firstname.lastname@example.org.