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Saturday, 29 August 2015


I am not one to glorify war or the injuries of war. I don’t think it’s clever of nations to send their finest young men and women to death or disfigurement: “the old Lie,” as Wilfred Owen put it with a capital L, “Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori.” It is sweet and right to die for your country. Did you know Owen’s middle name was Salter? No relation.
Frederick Gurney Salter (1874-1969)

Try as I may, I cannot understand the attitude of men like my grandfather Fred Salter (1874-1969) who, too old to enlist at the start of the First World War, persisted in trying until he found an enlisting officer willing to turn a blind eye to his age; and who was determined to return to active frontline duty even after his leg was amputated, having been hit by a German sniper in January 1916 while he was on a barbed wire patrol beyond the trenches.

He got a Certificate of Gratitude from the king and a wooden leg from the hospital, an actually wooden prosthesis, on which he walked painfully for the last 54 years of his life. Without complaint, my father always said.

Lieutenant F.G. Salter
5th Battalion The Rifle Brigade (The Prince Consort’s Own)
Served with honour and was disabled in the Great War
Invalided from the Service 12th February 1919
George R[ex] I[mperator]

At least, my grandfather may have felt, he survived. A great friend of Fred’s, Tudor Castle, died later the same year that Fred was injured, when a shell struck his trench at Arras in August 1916. Tudor was a poet: I still have the first edition copy of Rupert Brooke’s first volume of poetry which Tudor gave Fred in 1914, and the first edition copy of Brooke’s posthumous collection which Tudor gave his sister May in 1915. Fred and May were married three months before Tudor was killed.

Tudor Castle (1882-1916) and Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

When Fred enlisted, it was with his best friend Robert (the poet R.E. Vernède) who was also too old to sign up. Once he was hors de combat, Fred sent Robert knitwear, food and magazines in the trenches and Robert wrote Fred a poem which began
Peaks that you dreamed of, hills your heart has climbed on,
Never your feet shall climb, your eyes shall see:
All your life long you must tread lowly places,
Limping for England, well – so let it be.

Robert’s publisher rejected the poem for being too unsupportive of the war effort. But Robert too lost his life, on Easter Monday 1917, when his platoon stumbled on a German machine gun position. And Robert’s poem about Fred was included in the posthumous collection of his work published the following September.

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was killed in action in France on 4th November 1918, a week before the end of the war.

R.E. Vernede (1875-1917) and Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

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