Dunkirk Song - honouring a father with PTSD

Discussion in '1940' started by Ms.Mousette, Sep 9, 2017.

  1. Ms.Mousette

    Ms.Mousette Junior Member

    I have been in two minds about whether to post this song in a forum that deals with historical facts, as it addresses the feelings and fears of my father, his experience of Dunkirk and the effect that it had on him for the rest of his life.

    Although he always described himself as a "Despatch Rider" at Dunkirk I do not know for sure if he was in Signals, although he was earlier in Ops in the RE. He said that at Dunkirk he was tasked with finding groups of men (apologies that I cannot be more technical!) and directing them to beaches where they would be picked up. Also that he was told to return back towards Dunkirk to another beach. (Again, apologies for the vagueness and the lack of detail in my memories.)

    My father did not talk to me directly ever about his fears during Dunkirk - I only learned about them in his lifetime from overheard conversations. His stories to his family were always more practical or of "derring do" - mending his motorbike to carry on his journey, that sort of thing.

    However, after my father's death, in 1994, his "war time friends" told me that he talked of little else but the horror of Dunkirk. I also discovered from the British Legion, who had been pursuing a claim on his behalf for a wartime eye injury, that immediately after the evacuation he had been sent to a psychiatric field hospital. After that, he went AWOL, then was found and returned with no disciplinary action and was later discharged with a good record but as unfit for further service. (I think I found out that the code used was one for "invaliding".)

    With that background, I hope it will be understood that I do not seek to be contentious by saying that the fears that haunted him were not just to do with the very reasonable expectation that he might be killed at any moment. For whatever reason, he also feared that the evacuation plan included both "rescue beaches" and "decoy beaches", ie. that he might be responsible for directing some groups of men to certain death. Further, that his instructions to return towards Dunkirk would likely lead him to no place of safety at all. In the event, he said that he had been picked up from a small, sheltered cove.

    When I was writing this song, I researched personal and official accounts of the Dunkirk evacuation. I could not find any evidence to support the fears that my father had. Neither do I have any proof of the reality of his memories or the truth of his accounts of what happened. How much he embroidered or, alternatively, what he hid from himself or others, I do not suppose I will ever know.

    The fact that his fears, both about "misdirecting" others and about his own instructions, might have been entirely misplaced is not really relevant. For all I know, those "fears" might have been "made up" after the event, to give a more "macho" spin on his experience. That is, to conceal his more visceral, obvious, natural - and I suspect to him "shameful" - fears while in that awful place of death and destruction.

    What I do know is that, by the accounts of people who knew him before and after, that he was never the same again.

    Talking to an older friend of mine, whose father was in WWI, was also revealing. We discovered that we had had similar experiences of dealing, as children, with a parent suffering with what we would now recognise as PTSD. It is not pleasant.

    So, finally, some friends who have been in more recent war zones have found this song disturbing for the emotions it evoked in them. Do you do "trigger warnings" here? If so, perhaps this might need one.

    Apologies for the lengthy explanation. I hope that if you have read it that you understand my caution and the reason for giving it. My intention in this song is to believe in my father's account of his experience of Dunkirk and to recognise and honour just a little of the impact on him of PTSD.

    Best wishes,

    Liz Panton
    ps. I had to substitute "ruddy" for "bloody" as this was being broadcast and I was told, "no swearing!"
    Recce_Mitch likes this.
  2. CL1

    CL1 116th LAA and 92nd (Loyals) LAA,Royal Artillery Patron

  3. Ms.Mousette

    Ms.Mousette Junior Member

    Hi CL1,

    I was given sight of them by the British Legion in 1994, who were pursuing the claim (for compensation? Benefits?) due to war injury to his eye at the time my father died. It was from those records that I learned that he had been taken to a psychiatric field hospital immediately after Dunkirk.

    Thank you very much for the link. I did not realise that I could apply for a copy - I thought that they could only be accessed by an "official body" of some sort. That is really helpful to know!

    Best wishes,
  4. Tricky Dicky

    Tricky Dicky Don'tre member

    Hi Liz

    Just wanted to say thank you for posting something so close and dear to your heart, it takes some courage, as you father had to do his job.

  5. Recce_Mitch

    Recce_Mitch Very Senior Member

    Thanks for posting

  6. Ms.Mousette

    Ms.Mousette Junior Member

    Thank you Tricky Dicky - and Paul (Recce Mitch) too :)

    It only really hit home to me after my father died what a grip his war experience had had on him all his later life.

    Talking to his old "war friends" was a revelation.

    Also, in his wallet, I found two newspaper clippings, one announcing the start of WWII and the other the end, and copies of two poems.

    One poem, another "cutting", was "The Second Coming" by W.B. Yeats":

    The Second Coming

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again; but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

    I had that poem in my mind too when I was writing the song about Dunkirk.

    The other poem was my handwritten copy of "The Moth Signal (On Egdon Heath)" by Thomas Hardy, that I had given him in my schooldays. I did not understood the meaning of that poem at the time, I just liked it for the story about the moth and the "Ancient Briton" and I thought my father would like it too. When I found it in his wallet, I was very touched. I also realised then that my father would have well understood the meaning behind that poem and that it would have resonated for him! (He was an absolute rogue!)

    The Moth Signal

    "What are you still, still thinking,"
    He asked in vague surmise,
    "That stare at the wick unblinking
    With those great lost luminous eyes?"

    "O, I see a poor moth burning
    In the candle-flame," said she,
    Its wings and legs are turning
    To a cinder rapidly."

    "Moths fly in from the heather,"
    He said, "now the days decline."
    "I know," said she. "The weather,
    I hope, will at last be fine.

    "I think," she added lightly,
    "I'll look out at the door.
    The ring the moon wears nightly
    May be visible now no more."

    She rose, and, little heeding,
    Her husband then went on
    With his attentive reading
    In the annals of ages gone.

    Outside the house a figure
    Came from the tumulus near,
    And speedily waxed bigger,
    And clasped and called her Dear.

    "I saw the pale-winged token
    You sent through the crack," sighed she.
    "That moth is burnt and broken
    With which you lured out me.

    "And were I as the moth is
    It might be better far
    For one whose marriage troth is
    Shattered as potsherds are!"

    Then grinned the Ancient Briton
    From the tumulus treed with pine:
    "So, hearts are thwartly smitten
    In these days as in mine!"

    I have written a song that reflects the theme in the this poem in an oblique way but it is nothing to do with WW2 so not relevant to post here.

    What I would like to do, but I have not started to tackle it yet, is write a song in memory of my mother, who was the longest serving woman in the British Army at demob after WW2. She went straight back in again and her experiences of the war were very different to my father's. For her, it was a time of great opportunity, fun, adventure and female companionship. She, much more than my father, was a "risk taker" by nature, enjoyed her time on "Ack Ack" and applied every week to be send abroad "to kill Germans"! How she would have fared if she had been sent abroad, who knows?

    That reminds me, I must remember to post in the "Women in WW2" section of the forum!

    Thank you again for your comments,

    Best wishes,


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