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Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Grandpa didn't talk much

Lt Victor Wargent (Eighth Army)

Victor Charles Wargent, known as ‘Vic’ to friends or simply ‘Grandpa’ to us, didn’t talk much.

He was brought up and schooled with the ideals of the British Empire, combined with a good old-fashioned Methodist sense of duty.

Like many others, as soon as World War II broke out he volunteered - alongside his best mate Fred - hoping that they might be posted together, though it was not to be.

Then he had second thoughts. There were the cautionary tales of 18 million dead from the Great War, and he had a new-born daughter to think of.

A quickfire change of plan was called for! Vic got himself sent to a huge tyre depot in Derby in England’s industrial midlands, and tried to make himself indispensable.

He did well. Too well, it turned out, as he very quickly had an inspection from a General who called him up: 'Good show, lad. Must be officer material!'.

Vic was immediately sent for officer training in Palestine.

The Eighth Army was not exactly what Vic had in mind, but off it would be to the desert war, initially in North Africa.

From his army maps, photos, and other records, I can see that Vic was posted to Cairo.

The names of those desperate campaigns roll off the tongue from high school history: Tobruk, the Gazala Line, and one of WWII’s two key turning points, El Alamein.

Vic was in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps which dealt with all types of military stores, but also extremely dangerous jobs taking munitions to front lines.

That meant just a thin plywood screen between you in the front of truck and an immense potential explosion about 6 inches from the back of your head, which would certainly focus the mind.

You can sense why a bland tyre factory back in Blighty might have appealed.

After years of toil and thousands of lives lost, Rommel was eventually defeated in the decisive second battle of El Alamein.

For the Eighth Army and for Vic, immediately onwards to the Italian campaign.

No leave

In 1944, five punishing years in to the War, Vic was at last granted his first leave, when he finally hoped to see his daughter again.

Excruciatingly, he arrived moments late and missed his troopship in Italy, so the leave was never to materialise.

Then in a bizarre twist of fate the troopship was blown up and destroyed before it had even left harbour. One plane, one bomb, directly into the troopship’s funnel.

Just another escape of outrageous fortune for one family, and senseless tragedy for hundreds of others.

After that near miss, Vic never got any leave to see his daughter in over half a decade at war.

The Eighth Army reached Rome by the summer of 1944.

Low-ranked officer

The 2nd pip on the arm denotes the low officer rank of Lieutenant, which Vic held throughout the War.

Vic didn’t keep all that much from the War, though he retained his pay books. Scant compensation, you might say.

Vic didn't talk a lot, and I know my Dad regrets hugely not speaking to him more when he was older.

As young kids we were thrilled by his blood-stained army knife, and always hoped for exciting War stories, but none were ever forthcoming.

When he was in his 70s, Vic merely referred to the War as ‘those lost years'.

Vic was a quiet man, always well-dressed, polite, reserved, and as far as I know or can remember, universally liked.

He liked golf and played football for a Kidderminster club, after an unsuccessful trial at Aston Villa. 

He was one of the lucky ones, and his mate Fred lived through the War too. Vic didn’t see a hospital bed until one week after WWII ended, ostensibly for food poisoning, of all things!

But what little was understood then about the mental scars of war. What little is understood now?

Spirit of the ANZACs

The Eighth Army consisted of British, Australian, and New Zealander troops.

But while it was ANZAC Day that inspired this miniature memoir, the troops of Eighth Army also hailed from all over the Commonwealth, from Africa, Rhodesia, British India, and Canada, as well as from European countries such as Poland and Greece.

And if we’ve learned anything from WWII - and at least 50 million dead from that one war alone - it’s that commemoration shouldn’t dwell unduly on nations, race, or borders.

Just one small tale among tens of millions. Remembering them today.