Just-U-Wait by Barnard Browne
Both his son and wife were scared of him. However hard he tried, my father could not measure up to him in practical ability. Even a generation down the line, I was made to stand in front of high-speed projectiles so that I could also be a man like my grandfather. But it was clear that I would never be a cricketer so I gratefully descoped my sporting ambitions to the long grass.
Originally from Cookham in Berkshire, where it was rumoured, they had lost a great farm, my forbears eventually fetched up in Stanwell - which now lies mostly under Heathrow airport, once a pagan shrine. My great-grandfather, Richard James was a bare-foot shepherd but rose to be steward of the estates of local aristocrats. He was famous for this great strength and for what my father described as a primitive approach to child rearing. The implied brutality was mercifully ameliorated by his much-loved wife, Annie.
Although sparing in conversation, in his dotage he was occasionally heard to complain about “that there etler” which was taken to be a reference to the German Fuhrer. However, it was the Kaiser that posed the more immediate threat in the false summer before the Great War.
His son, Percival Richard - my grandfather - had anticipated the conflict by joining the Territorial Army before the war. An excellent horseman, he appeared in the London Lord Mayor’s show of 1912 as an armoured knight. Lest this might make him seem glamorous, he generally had a cigarette (he favoured Woodbines) permanently adhered to his lower lip, where it could doubtless benefit from the shelter provided by his large agricultural nose.
His future wife was also aware of the passing of the old-world. She recorded in her daybook a very competent water-colour showing the Kaiser gazing at a shattered horizon with the caption “Man or Devil?”.
Percy was commissioned through the ranks and then seconded to the newly-formed Tank Corps where his practical skills could be put to good use. Despite the change of mount, he was issued with a spectacular cavalry sword of the 1912 pattern – the last ever intended for combat.
He commanded a “Mark IV” tank in the second battle of Cambrai in 1918. This iconic 30-ton rhombus had tracks that passed right round the hull so it could span wide ditches and clear away barbed wire for the infantry. Despite its initial shock-value, the tank was under-powered, under-gunned and under-armoured. It depended on close support from the infantry to protect it from explosives pushed into hatches or gaps in the armour.
Conditions inside for the 8-man crew were appalling. Temperatures could reach 50C and the noise was deafening. The commander and driver could only see out via periscopes and the gunners operated mostly blind. To protect them from the liquid metal splashing around inside, they wore masks of chain mail; not so very different to that used in the 1912 show. The official designation of Percy’s tank was J16, but the nickname painted on the hull was: “Just-U-Wait”.
On 28 March 1918, during the German Spring Offensive of 1918, in the vicinity of Achiet Le Grand near Cambrai, Just-U-Wait was hit and immobilised by a 5.9-inch shell. He was the only survivor. I found two photographs of German troops posing with their trophy in the archive.
He spent the rest of his life picking metal fragments out of his arse. At the end of the war, it was said that he was offered a Military Cross and a posting to India as a major - but declined both.
He returned to farm in Stanwell in partnership with his former employer. He married Ivy, the daughter of a police superintendent in the East End of London. The farm went into a gradual decline with friction between different branches of the family. My father, Richard, was also proving something of a disappointment, preferring a spiritual and contemplative life to the agricultural. However, he was blessed with a fine voice that gave him his own moment of glory as the Lord High Executioner in his school’s production of the Mikado. But he was so shamed of his lack of practical skills that he developed a phobia that blighted his declining years.
His aptitude for research led to a master’s degree in history and then a career in the church. He had been lucky to just avoid the war but now felt unworthy of the sacrifice of his peers.
The farm was finally buried beneath the main cargo terminal at Heathrow. I remember the screaming jet engines which made conversation impossible outdoors despite the sound-proofing provided by huge box hedges. The airport offered another compensation for the loss of the farm: he became a baggage handler. After a stroke he retired with Ivy to a quiet bungalow on the south coast.
Ivy had apparently been a good scholar and looked back on her school days with great affection. She was tall and sporty and had passed exams for entrance to the civil service. She had worked as a radiographer’s assistant at some point, but most of her life was spent tending to her insensitive husband and their unworldly, dreamy son.
Finally, she was crushed by age and infirmity. She found the twenty years of widowhood. unbearable. She had lost control of her life. But it was not only bishops and medics who fought for her immortal soul. Percy announced that if the Nazis invaded, he would kill his son, then his wife and finally himself. He must have agreed with the slogan that it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees. He was just another domestic dictator who arrogated to himself the life and death of those who depended on him – who might have loved him. He may have been the bravest of men, but I thought this was cowardice.