Discovering dad’s journal. The story behind ‘The Lucky Shilling: William Marsh’s War‘ by his son, Keith Marsh
(By the author, Keith Marsh): ‘For a long time I have been fascinated in the ordinary man’s attitude to war and combat. I have always found accounts of conflict by the more lowly ranks more interesting than learned writings of senior officers and armchair theorists. I prefer the ‘mud and guts’ accounts of the men who actually did the fighting.
I have enjoyed a number of books ranging from Rifleman Harris fighting in the Peninsular Campaign to Alistair Urquart’s incredible account of survival during the War in the Far East in ‘The Forgotten Highlander.’ In all of the books I have read it is the fascinating detail of survival, comradeship and dogged humour that, for me, was always more appealing than the more academic accounts of the campaigns.
It was in 2009 that I rediscovered the wartime account that my father had written some forty years earlier in response to my and my brother’s pestering for him to share the stories of his combat experiences during The Second World War. We knew the stories existed and in that respect we were lucky, if you can call it that. My brother, Ian, had been hit by a car on his way home from school and was in hospital for three months. Dad was working at the Reading Postal Sorting Office at the time and started to visit Ian every night on his way home from work. However, after about a week of visiting, and he would typically stay about an hour, he had completely run out of fresh subjects to talk to a twelve year old boy about, so one evening he asked Ian if he would like him to tell him a few stories about the war. Ian was keen to for Dad to begin and so out poured hundreds of stories, some taking two evening visits to complete.
I also found photographs, original documents and his, mine and my brother’s notes made at the time. That started a journey for me that finished in 2013.
The more I read his journal, the more intrigued I became. It was as if I was discovering a completely different man from the father I had grown up with. Why had he joined the Army in 1937? I had always thought that he had just served for the duration; and where was the mild mannered, gentle natured man I loved in this story of bloody hand-to hand fighting, breathtaking bravery and desperate survival? There was no axe to grind, no need to exaggerate. An educated man, he told his story just as it was, this was the sort of military history I loved – in the raw. His main concern was that his Bren Gun would fire when he pulled the trigger!
I spoke to surviving family members to flesh out his early life and went to see the curator of his Regimental Museum who supplied me with the War Diaries and relevant maps covering the period from the outbreak of the War, The Phoney War, winning his Military Medal on The River Dyle to the time of his capture. My brother and 1 then went to France and Belgium, visited the villages he had stayed in during the Phoney War and then drove along the route the Regiment took to the battle positions on The Dyle. We then used the campaign maps supplied by the Museum and stood in what was left of the slit trenches trying to imagine what it must have been like on the evening of the thirteenth of May 1940 as the Germans attacked for the first time.
More research followed and, even though I obviously couldn’t ask him directly, 1 found myself answering my own questions with my father’s voice. This was helped in that 1 had served with the Army in BAOR and knew the type of countryside that he had fought over and, when peacekeeping in Northern Ireland and fighting in The Oman with the Sultan’s forces, apart from using an SLR rather than a Lee Enfield No 4,1 had also used, in essence, the same weapons that he had used.
Almost without thinking, as my notes and experiences grew, I started the book. It was only ever intended to be for the family, but as it grew, I was encouraged to seek a wider audience.
I have found the whole experience both absorbing and addictive. In fact I have now started a new book based on my grandfather’s experiences in The Great War. He was also a Royal Berkshire and won the DCM at Loos in 1915.’