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Illingworth House: 31 - The Mayor's Dinner

..."Ah'd just like to say first that there were nowt courageous about what Ah did. Ah were bloody fritted to death from start to finish an' Ah'm sorry it all happened. They were nobbut youngsters Ah killed. Family men like meself an Ah'm ashamed at what Ah did an' may God forgive me. There were nowt honourable about it an' there's nowt honourable at all about this war. It's animal butchery, that's all. An why the hell we're fighting it Ah don't know. Happen the general 'ere can explain." Then he sat down...

VC-winner Joe tells the hard truth at a Keighworth civic dinner for the town's servicemen.

To read earlier chapters of John Waddington-Feather's novel please click on Illingworth House in the menu on this page.

While on discharge leave Joe rarely went into town but spent hours walking on the moors, or in his hen-pen, pottering about there or looking after the adjoining hen-pens of his pals still in the army. Both, like him, were wounded and were eventually discharged. Some weeks after Joe's return, all three were invited to a dinner given by the mayor for the town's servicemen.

The mayor was a kindly old bachelor, who had given liberally to the town all of his life and felt it was his civic duty to help all servicemen. Like most civilians, he had no idea what conditions were like at the front and a censored press made sure the truth wasn't told until long after the war. He was very patriotic and still full of jingoism and national pride, like an overgrown schoolboy.

Joe was given pride of place as the only Victoria Cross holder the town boasted and the dinner the mayor gave was memorable. They had publicised Joe's appearance and it was packed with guests from across the Riding. They included a general, the Lord Lieutenant of the Riding, the Chief Constable - and Colonel Abe Illingworth, all in full dress and wearing rows of medals.

Mary accompanied Joe and was completely over-awed. She spoke hardly a word to her neighbour, the deputy mayor's wife, all night. Neither did Joe until he was invited to say a few words when the after dinner speeches began. He was the only one there not wearing his medals and the only one on the top table not wearing full dress, still dressed in hospital blue.

The mayor spoke first, welcoming the guests and was followed at some length by a barking glassy-eyed general, decorated with three rows of ribbons, who drooled on and on about the British Tommy and the fine job he was doing against the Hun. He was a bull-necked man, with a road map of veins spreading across his face from a pickled nose. He had wined and dined well before he spoke and his speech was slurred, but still warm and hearty.

He began by lauding to the skies his commander, General Haig, and like Haig himself the general was a bluffer. Full of himself and blustering, an unloved bullied schoolboy taking it out of his fellow men by fighting a cruel war. Right at the end of his speech, he mentioned Joe and what a fine fellah he was. The sort who would win Britain the war and who made it great and it was a pleasure to be invited to greet him. He sat down to prolonged applause and when it ended, the mayor called on Joe to say a few words.

He had sat through the general's speech looking more and more grim, and he didn't applaud. He let the silence hold for some moments before getting slowly to his feet. He addressed no one but launched straight in, looking steadfastly before him at the opposite wall.

"Ah'd just like to say first that there were nowt courageous about what Ah did. Ah were bloody fritted to death from start to finish an' Ah'm sorry it all happened. They were nobbut youngsters Ah killed. Family men like meself an Ah'm ashamed at what Ah did an' may God forgive me. There were nowt honourable about it an' there's nowt honourable at all about this war. It's animal butchery, that's all. An why the hell we're fighting it Ah don't know. Happen the general 'ere can explain." Then he sat down.

The silence which greeted Joe's short speech was total. The audience was gob-smacked. No one knew what to say, least of all the general who was red in the face and looked as if he were about explode. The embarrassed mayor tried to apologise. He hummed and haahed and said everyone had the right to speak their minds, but he hadn't really expected that. He put it down to Joe feeling unwell. After all, he had been badly wounded.

Joe stood up again. "Tha'rt right, sir," he said brusquely. "Ah haven't felt well since Ah realised what a bloody mess this war is, an the longer Ah listen to folk beefing war up, the sicker Ah feel! Come on, Mary," he said turning to his wife. "We're goin' home."

Arming Mary round the tables he left the room in silence. When he had gone, the bull-necked general found his voice and got to his feet. He felt he had to bring some sort of order to the gathering and reminded them why they were there: to pay their respects to their king and those who had been injured in his service. He barked away a few minutes then spoke briefly of Joe and asked them to forgive him. Yes, he had been badly wounded. He wasn't himself. He would be put right by the doctors. Then he went on to praise Keighworth for its effort throughout the war and said how much they had to be proud of.

No one mentioned Joe again and they set about enjoying the rest of the night as the drink flowed more and more. By the time the mayor and the general had told each other what good fellows they all were for the umpteenth time, Joe's outburst had been forgotten, and those there who had escaped military service and spent the war safely in Keighworth went home very happy.

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