Forgive me Lord. In front of me as I write are three connected items. They all rather horrify me. The first is a leather-bound book of letters written from the first world war trenches of Passchendaele by my father George to his father John who was a recruiting officer for Glasgow. My father went on to become a Church of Scotland minister and a renowned pacifist. The second is a collection of his medals, including the Military Cross. They are battered and scarred and have obviously been stamped on, or otherwise abused. The third item is my voting accreditation so that I can vote at tomorrow's election on Europe.
All rather scary. All connected. Let's go straight to item one. It's a letter from a muddy hole in a front-line trench dated 21 August 1917. I don't expect you to believe it. I wouldn't myself if I didn't have it here before me. It's just too intensely grotesque. The day has started at 4.45am, George tells John, when a barrage of mortars is sent over against the German lines. This, in the third battle of Ypres, when on one day alone 25,000 Germans and 17,000 allies are killed. He is working as an administrative officer, but it's hardly a desk job. His office is 12 feet by six and almost immediately after kick-off the Germans work out its H.Q. and start machine-gunning and sniping at the door with such ferocity that his first two messengers are shot dead and he decides to send all his other messages by pigeon.
Ten minutes after the start, two wounded officers crash through the door, followed by five more. He's 22 years old. He has to keep working at his papers. He sends out a messenger pigeon to get a doctor. He doesn't arrive till all the seven wounded men are dead at his feet. The letter ends 'All that just to give you some idea of what a joyful time you can spend if you like to look for it'.
From my researches I believe that was the day when he supervised 400 men rushing forward and only 80 coming back. He doesn't mention it in the letter. Perhaps there was a limit to his mock cheeriness. Perhaps he worried that if he started to cry he would never be able to stop. Later his fellow soldiers were to court martial him on a mock charge of aggressive optimism.
As I say, I wouldn't believe that story unless I had it here in front of me.
Let's cut to item three. Tomorrow I have to decide which way to vote. It's not easy. In the early 1970s, the 22-year-old returned soldier had become a politician leading a campaign to stop Scotland joining the EU. It surprised me at the time. Still does. You would think that anyone who had seen such mindless slaughter would campaign for more internationalism, not less. His argument was that unrestricted international monopoly capitalism, which is the way he saw Europe, would only lead to corruption, and to an extent he has been proved right.
As for me, I swither. You may have already concluded that this piece is an attempt at self-glorification, with me trying to be associated with a great man. I wish. The truth is that we fought on almost every issue and I ended up a godless member of the naval reserve and a supporter of Europe. I once told him it was hard work being his son, and he responded that it was much harder being my father. I suspect we were both right.
So which way to vote? As I say I can see both sides of the case, but in the end I suspect that in the end my terror of war, of which I have seen too much in my life, will lead me to vote for a pro-Europe party. That grotesque letter from the 21 August 1917 overwhelms all other considerations. When he came home he made no indication to his recruiting officer father that he wasn't entirely convinced by the war. Too much respect. Too much love. No, for 13 years he sat firmly on his feelings. He waited till his father was dead.
And the medals? The stamped on medals? I have them here in my hand. It took him many months to openly announce his pacifism. He found it hard. He said that being a pacifist was like walking through a dark wood and having small animals rushing out from the undergrowth and nipping you in the ankles with some whispering 'traitor' and some 'coward'.
I sometimes think that the trauma he suffered in the trenches drove him slightly mad. Or even, dear God, this is a worrying thought: sane. He finally flipped on a Sunday morning whilst preaching in Govan Old when he ripped off his medals and threw them at the congregation. See, I have them here in my hand. Holding them makes my eyes mist up. I rather regret joining the naval reserve when he was still alive. Too much respect. Too much love.