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Five stories about my great-grandfather

What mourning songs for those who die as cattle?/Only the awful anger of the guns.

Wilfred Owen

A long line of my paternal ancestors served in the military, and way back when there were such things they received titles and holdings to commemorate their efforts on behalf of their nation. In the time before they were Counts. And there was a time before that when I don't know what they were, only that they came from France to Georgia during the Great Crusades and liked the scenery I guess because they never did push on to the Holy Land.

But their interest in (hand to hand combat? shiny swords? monarch-approved violence?) meant they kept on with the military thing and it became something of a family tradition. Essentially if you were the eldest son, you could expect two things out of life besides death and taxes. Your name would be Giorgi (George) and you would be sent to the Cadets and when you grew mature enough, you would become an Officer in the Army.

At the time of the First World War my great-grandfather was an officer* in the White Army, and was part of the Russian troups that were sent to France to fight for the French - there is a reference to him here if you look under Mutiny; my knowledge of this is third-hand, from what he told my grandmother and she told me. But still these fragments of fragments are the portrait of a world.

So then, here are five stories about my great-grandfather.

1. The Russian troops in France were generally ostracised and maligned by their French co-combatants, for their poverty, their foreignness. One day my great-grandfather overheart French Officers joking tha the Russian officers were so poor that for desert they ate tallow wax from candles. So he organised an elaborate banquet and invited all the French Officers to dinner, and for desert he instructed the cooks to serve large bowls of vanilla ice cream shaped like candles. Apparently their faces were worth it, at evening's end.

2.There was a bear cub that his regiment found. They fed it, tamed it, it stayed with them. He became their mascot. There are photographs of it still, somewhere. Of Russian military encampments in France. Grinning soldiers around the lumbering form of a young bear. All of them outcasts from their own world. Refugees drawing together.

3. During the defence of Paris he was wounded in the chest. He survived but they were never able to remove all the bullet fragments from his lungs so his health suffered a great deal and up until his death he coughed when he spoke and his breath whistled. He died of the chronic complications from his wounds a few years after the war.

4. He was a proud man. After the war he lived in Serbia as a refugee. He was practically peniless, but when he learned how insultingly small the compensation that France was offering the Russian veterans was, he flew into a great rage and refused to take any of the money. By all acccounts he was a just man, my great-grandfather, and he expected to be treated justly.

5. He had left his pregnant wife and three children in Ukraine (later they went back to Georgia) when his regiment was sent to France. He never saw them again. (But that becomes a story of my great-grandmother and deserves a separate post).


This is why Remembrance Day is important to me. For him, and all the others like him. It was a time when wars were fought for ideologies beyond More Oil For Me! and the people who volunteered, the ones who fell - who were wiped away from the earth as easily as the dishes are swept from a table, all the ones whose names were lost - they all mattered. All wars are dishonourable to me - they all take us to the basest, the worst part of ourselves - they command enormous price, enormous pieces of the soul. Nonetheless there were many people who fought with honour, and they deserve their two minutes of silence and memory from those of us who were not there.

*In the wikipedia bit he is named Colonel, but on his gravestone it is written General, so I don't know when he got the rank only that he did it by his death in 1923.

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