After he’d looked at it a dozen times, Second Lieutenant Harold Simpson’s wristwatch finally read 7.29am. He put his whistle to his lips and blew a long and confident-sounding blast. Cheering, the men of his platoon, heavily laden, clambered up the ladders and hopped the bags into no-man’s-land. Harold, my great-uncle, was among the first of them.
We all know what happened next at the Somme. The mind-shattering noise of the British artillery barrage went suddenly silent and the Germans in the trenches opposite, who were supposed to have been blasted into oblivion, had just enough time to get out of their deep dugouts and prepare to man their machine-guns.
Harold’s captain, striding purposefully towards the German lines, was hit. He shouted through the din at Harold to take over. “Harold was promoted on the field of battle,” my grandmother used to say grandly. But he was an acting captain for all of ten minutes, until a stray bullet hit him in the chest. For a while he tried to get up and re-join his men, but they had long since captured the German trenches and were coping with a counterattack. He was unconscious by the time a stretcher party found him, and at first they thought he was dead. He must have made some sound, some movement, so they got him to a casualty station.
The following days passed in confusion and semi-consciousness and the next thing he really knew was that he was back at Waterloo Station in London with his girlfriend, Chrissie, and two of his admiring sisters gathered round his stretcher, kissing him and arguing with the harassed officer in charge to let him come home with them so they could nurse him themselves.
Harold was 24: tall, amiable, clever, handsome, with one of those silky moustaches that heroes affected in the war stories of writers such as Douglas Newton. At school he had been a cricketer and a classicist, and could have gone to Oxford; but his father, a big builder in south London, thought it would distract him from the family business. The headmaster said at his last prize-giving that if anyone from the school was likely to be prime minister some day, it was Harold.
But Harold didn’t become prime minister. Instead, the doctors patched him up and he was transferred to another regiment a year later, in time for the next big push – at Passchendaele. No one in the family found out exactly what happened to him there, because he never spoke about it. At some point in the first few days he was hit in the head by a large piece of shrapnel. It did terrible things to him, physically and mentally.
I first met him decades later, in the early 1950s. I was a small boy, walking down the street with my father. “Damn, it’s Uncle Harold,” my father whispered. It was too late to turn down a side street. The tall, gaunt figure in the dirty trench coat came up to us. Almost immediately he started haranguing my father. Then he turned to me. “This your boy?” he asked. I nodded, frightened. The dark, bitter eyes passed hotly over me and then he turned back to my father. They argued some more.
I must have been eight when I saw him next, glimpsing him through the heavy curtains of my grandmother’s sitting room. He was hammering on the front door. “Oh God,” she said, “we must pretend we’re out.” I was scared out of my wits. Harold stood on the doorstep snarling, and shouted out some curse. Then he shambled off.
My father explained it to me as best as he could. The head wound at Passchendaele had ruined Harold’s life. He suffered almost unceasingly from savage headaches. He couldn’t work, he couldn’t maintain any relationship; all he could do was drink and beg. Chrissie married him loyally after the war, but he beat her and their little son. At last she left him, and Harold had nowhere to go but the streets. The sisters who had hero-worshipped him shut him out of their lives. Once, when my grandmother refused him money, he struck her in the face. The gentleness, the charm, the intelligence were all swallowed up by the constant, overwhelming pain of his injury.
No one in the family said so, but they must have felt it would have been better if Harold had died a hero on the first day of the Somme, or at Passchendaele. The memory of him as he once was, joking and good-looking and funny, forever stroking his silky moustache, would have stayed with them all. Instead, he was sentenced to four long decades of pain, an outcast whom no one could help. It was far, far worse than being killed outright: he said so himself.
One night in 1958, Harold lay down on a bench at Waterloo and died in his sleep. Did he gravitate to Waterloo because that was where he and his men had left from, when they were entraining for the Somme? Or because he came back there, a wounded hero? The policeman who found him went through his pockets and discovered my grandmother’s address. A sergeant from the local station came round to break the news to her. She found it hard to forgive herself for thinking it, but she was relieved.
Harold had had only one thing of value on him. The sergeant pulled a brown-paper envelope out of his pocket, and asked her to sign for it. It contained a silver wristwatch, made by Longines. Chrissie had given it to him in 1914, when he joined up with such enthusiasm. Later he could have got a decent price for it, but some instinct made him hold on to it to the end: one solitary link to a better time. This was the watch he looked at, just before he clambered out into no-man’s-land. I’m wearing it on my own wrist now, as I write this.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. He tweets @JohnSimpsonNews
This article appears in the 13 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM