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U3A Writing: Potatoes

"One day we moved into this trench, and I saw there was a field of potatoes right next to it...'' Betty Stigant's father often recalled the days when he was in the World War One trenches.

The Easter of 1937 my parents went off to France for a holiday. I had only a vague idea of where France might be or why my parents should want to go there. With three elder sisters, the eldest seventeen, I was well looked after and didn’t miss my mum.

Our only disappointment was when our red setter dog knocked down the large box of Easter eggs that our parents left for us. We got some of the chocolate, but all the eggs were broken.

Mum and Dad came home with piles of boring postcard pictures of the trenches where Dad spent so much of his war. Dad often told us war stories, but as a child I never saw the whole picture. He never mentioned blood, corpses, the smell or the fearful onslaught of the shelling. Only as an adult did I understand why those four years made such a deep impression on his mind.

I loved Dad’s stories which mostly told of small triumphs over unreasonable officers or sergeants or were about getting extra food.

The table is laid for Sunday lunch. There is a pretty white embroidered cloth, and in the centre is a vase of white cosmos. Dad pours some of the liquid from the bowl of beetroot into the vase so that we can see the flowers turn pink. Mum is cross. She fears it will stain the cloth.

“You are lucky that you always have enough to eat. When I was in the trenches we were often hungry. When the rations came the officers took what they wanted and passed the rest to the sergeants. The sergeants took what they wanted and gave us the rest. Once we got a piece of cheese so small we drew lots for it.”

Mum and the elder girls bring in plates of meat, salad and potatoes.

“One day we moved into this trench, and I saw there was a field of potatoes right next to it. Nobody recognized that these were potatoes that could make a jolly good feed for us. When I got the chance I went to the end of the trench and started to dig out the potatoes from underneath without disturbing the plants.

“One day a young bloke came with me. He hadn’t been in France long. Suddenly he got excited. ‘I can see Fritz,’ he said, raising his rifle. I pushed it down. ‘If you can see him, he can see us. He is just getting spuds like us. If you shoot him, his mates will know we’re here and shoot us. No more spuds then.’”

Dad went on telling his stories for the rest of his life, and when I last visited him in 1972 he told me the potato story again. I had heard the story many times but his blue eyes, as ever, held my attention. He puffed at his cigarette despite his emphysema. This time he ended the story, “Staying alive. That’s what it was all about.”


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