The secret memories of a quiet hero; To read a stranger's account of your father's courage, outstanding dedication and skill is a deeply moving experience, as David Charters reports.
GOOD soldiers do not talk much of their bravery.
For war changes people in a way which cannot be understood by those of us who have not experienced its sweating terrors, its moments of nobility and futility, its pitiful cries of the night, its newly pinned medals and crisp citations, the buffoonery and black jokes, its naked cowards and stiff heroes, the winners and losers.
Instead, to divert our minds from the truth, we have the wars fought in glorious technicolor and laid on celluloid, where John Wayne leads his men in grand charges and the dying GI clings to a locket with his mother's photograph, while his soul is ushered into Heaven on the wailing of violin strings.
Of course, the writers of books and the makers of documentary programmes have tried to give us a glimpse of how it was for the men and women who were taken away from their families and placed in some distant land, where the future had the certainty of a spin on a gambler's wheel.
Some of these offerings are enlightening to the reader or the viewer, giving new insights into the minds of warriors. But something is missing. Old soldiers do not speak of what happened in a personal way.
They will talk generally and they will give you an idea of what they felt. But they always hold something back, unless they are talking to comrades.
Some of what they saw and heard is not for us. So they slip into a strange solitude, a hearth for their own thoughts, which should not be disturbed by anyone else.
I know this from interviewing veterans of both world wars.
Their stories were strong and true and sometimes I thought they were about to tell of a close memory. Then they would look away and gaze, sad-eyed, to another place.
My own late father, also David Charters, was a good soldier and a brave man. Now I am reading the advanced copy of a book, to be published in September, which describes his character and praises the work that he did as a surgeon in a German Po W camp -- trying, in the most exacting circumstances, to operate on the eyes of men, whose faces had been horribly disfigured by fire or some other cruel weapon of war.
In common with all those other men, he would not speak at our home of his war work. It was a taboo subject, though he would on occasion make some general observations about how the war had been conducted by the top brass and the politicians, whom he generally disliked. But then he would slip again into his solitude.
However, he was much admired in our home town of Birkenhead and I learned that he had enlisted with the Territorial Army in the late 1930s, wishing to do his bit should war break out.
He had come here from Scotland where he had been brought up in extreme poverty in Stirling and Glasgow. His father, also David, had been a kindly and self-educated man, given to day-dreaming, who possessed some engineering skill, but had suffered long periods of unemployment, during which he would read extensively, particularly about overseas missionaries. My father's middle name was Livingstone. Some of his own fore bears had carried the Bible to Africa.
My father's mother was a strict Baptist of dour bearing. As her only child, she placed great faith in him. Sadly, she would seldom express any pleasure in my father's outstanding efforts at school.
These efforts, however, led to a charitable scholarship being established which enabled him to study medicine at Glasgow University. There, he met a completely different class of man -- young fellows with plenty of money who could spend freely on girls and drink.
Although he was unable to take part in these activities, he made friends. But the idea of spending so wildly on frivolous pursuits was to tighten his conviction that money should be earned by labour or talent.
Anyway, he left university with high hopes, having fulfilled the ambition of so many Scottish families -- a son who could enter a profession and show the English his true worth.
So he travelled to Birkenhead to set up practice in Conway Street, a poor, dock land area, similar in many ways to Liverpool's Scotland Road, with pubs featuring on most corners.
My father's generous spirit in often declining fees for treating the poverty-stricken families led to him being widely known as ``the poor man's doctor''.
When the General Strike came in 1926, he could pass picket lines as a friend. He abhorred the notion of measuring the suffering of a patient by his or her ability to pay for treatment. This was not so much Socialism in action, as a profound belief that the doctor's role was to ease pain and cure illness -- without the interference of managers or administrators whose poke-nosing he despised.
Against this background, he somehow managed to specialise in ophthalmic surgery, entirely through his own dedication. By then, he was married to my mother, Margaret, who died last year, and they had three daughters.
Then the war came. Everything in our family changed. My father was now Major Charters and he served from the beginning as a doctor.
In April 1941, he was captured by the Germans, who were reinforcing the Italian invasion of Greece. It was a time of chaos and my mother was informed that he was missing ``presumed dead''.
For several months, she was a war widow, though the girls, Mavis, Ruth and Eve, were not told of the loss of ``Daddy''. But, after what must have seemed an eternity, word reached them from the Red Cross that he had been located in the hospital at Stalag IXA Kloster Haina, in Germany. There, he was Po W (23911), treating the eyes and faces of Allied airman who had been shot down, improvising with primitive equipment and untried methods.
A chapter is devoted to this work in the Reconstruction ofWarriors, the new book about the medical treatment of airmen by E R Mayhew.
Because of his expertise, my father was not only sent all patients with eye injuries, but those with other facial wounds, especially eyelids. This often meant plastic surgery, a field in which he had no previous experience.
Conditions and equipment at the hospital were totally inadequate, but after much remonstrating with the authorities, he persuaded them to close the hospital in late 1942. The Germans offered to repatriate him and his patients.
But he decided to stay on inGermany, treating the Allied airmen at a better camp hospital in Stalag IXB at Bad Soden, a small spa town. To outsiders this was a decision of the high principle, demonstrating an astonishing dedication. Here, was the classic conflict between home and country. My father chose country. In her acceptance of this, my loyal mother would in later years always express her unfailing admiration of her husband, who died 24 years ago.
Privately, though, she had been deeply hurt. Her husband was not released until May 1945, by which time his eldest daughter, Mavis, was approaching adulthood.
It is not for me to pass judgment on this. I wasn't born until 1948. Those were different times. It is sufficent to say that many of his patients would not have seen their own children again, if it had not been for the passionate sense of duty, which had driven him since he was a little boy in thin trousers, staring through a Scottish window, to the many possibilities of life.
And it came to be that the delicate touch of his fingers brought joy to the eyes of other daddies, who had risked their lives in Spitfires and other slight planes, so that their country could be free. After the war, my father was a quieter figure at home. His service was rewarded with the MBE but he declined to accept it from Buckingham Palace, so it was sent on by registered mail. The influence of his upbringing and his experiences in the prison camp seemed to have cast a cloak over him, from which he could never quite escape. But this was never made known to his friends or patients and colleagues at the old Birkenhead General Hospital. They all adored him, loving his kindness of manner, gentle smile and quietly stated Scottish humour. Once, when I was about eight, he gave me a bar of chocolate.
``Eat it one bit at a time, so that it will last, '' he said, with a smile reaching back to a childhood memory of his own. ``It will be better that way. ''
He was right about that and many other things.
Major Charters in uniform before his capture; Airmen, such as these Spitfire pilots, shot down and burned, were often brought to Dr Charters for pioneering facial and eye surgery; Major Charters, centre right, with fellow Po Ws
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|Publication:||Daily Post (Liverpool, England)|
|Date:||Aug 24, 2004|
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