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Too Ugly to Fight in World War One

August 4, 2014

letouretmemorial

My grandpa’s name was Conrad too.  So was my father’s.  So was the Austrian Chief of Staff’s who bore rather more direct responsibility for the outbreak of World War One than anyone in our family. In 1914, grandpa rushed to the colours, anxious to play his part in the Great War.  But he was turned down on account of his severe lupus scarring.  Yes, he was judged too ugly to fight in World War One.  Apparently he would have just made the whole thing depressing.  Life for the infantry in the front line trenches might have become downright unhappy had my grandpa been allowed to join in.

His younger brother Archie did join the King’s Liverpool Regiment, however, and he was killed a year later.  I think the Battle of Festubert in which (guess what) the western allies lost far too many men securing far too little territory, connects with Archibald Brunström’s date of death and the deployment of his regiment.  He has no known grave but is commemorated at Le Touret Monument (see above).  Three years after that, my grandpa’s cousin – an artillery lieutenant was killed as well.

I suppose if he had anything in common with me other than a genetic trajectory, he would have spent much of the rest of his life wondering what would have happened if he had gone to war and Archie had stayed at home.  In the event, he became a professional gambler, and apparently, a rather good one.  It was a profession he had to give up when he proposed to marry my grandma.  Apparently, her family asked him how he “intended to maintain our daughter” and when he replied “well, I hang around Aintree racecourse a lot but I’ve got a system”, they were less than impressed.  So they nudged him into a dull clerical job on the docks and he was never as well off in his life.

Later on my grandpa abandoned my grandma (and her four children) and began a new life with a new family on the Isle of Man.  I never knew the man.  He died a few months before I was born.  I’ve never even seen a picture of him.  There’s one I’ve seen of a dapper looking gent staring at a camera from a safe distance who might be him, but I can’t be sure.  I suppose if you’ve been branded “too ugly to fight in World War One” you’ve an excuse for being a little camera shy.

Sometimes I wish I had met him.    I suppose he was a fairly deplorable person in various respects but I can’t help but be fascinated by the evident charismatic potential of someone who could pursue a romantic life of more than average complexity despite being officially stamped too repulsive to take part in the hell of the trenches.  There must have been a spark there, something seductive enough to survive the strains of murderous world war and uneasy peace.  And without that spark I suppose I wouldn’t be here to type this.

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