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Journeys To War

By Ashleylister @ashleylister
It feels almost perverse to be blogging about journeys during our second stretch of lockdown, but given the time of the season I thought I'd write something about the enormous change of horizons that war brought to the lives of those who signed up to serve, especially in the two world wars.
For thousands of young men from hill farms, mining villages, small towns, many of whom had never been - and never looked to go in their lives - further than occasional visits to the nearest big city or seaside resort, finding themselves not only away from home for an extended period but on trains and boats to France, Italy, north Africa, Afghanistan, the Far East was a transformative experience (even leaving aside the gruesome business of the fighting they were engaged in). Such journeys to war at a minimum broadened their horizons beyond all expectations; in many cases they also proved to be intense and rapid voyages from youth to manhood.
It is hard to imagine what those journeys must have been like. We are truly global now (thanks in no small measure, ironically, to the great wars of the 20th century). Apart from the natural apprehension about having to fight and kill other human beings, those soldiers of World War I found themselves heading off mostly in ignorance about the places they were going to or what they were likely to find there, truly a voyage into the unknown.
Many from the north of England who signed up to fight in the Great War found themselves passing through Preston railway station. Sadly, the "war to end all wars" proved not to be the case and the pattern of mass troop migrations was repeated a quarter of a century later.

Journeys To War

Preston Railway Station 1940

As part of the programme of events to commemorate the centenary of the Great War, the waiting room at Preston station that had served as the Free Buffet between 1915 and 1919 was redecorated with art works on the walls telling the story of how in 1915 the Mayoress of Preston and a volunteer force of women that eventually numbered four hundred set up a free canteen service at the station for the troops who were passing through. The very least they could do was offer the soldiers a cup of tea and some jam sandwiches, a small but comforting gesture to those who were going off to risk their lives. On the first day, they served 386 men. By 1917 they were providing tea and sandwiches for an average of 3,250 men every day. The women worked in 12 hour shifts and the Free Buffet was open non-stop around the clock for the best part of four years.
I found the messages on the waiting-room wall very poignant, especially the one that reads: "...I am away to god knows where, only got warned this morning." 

Journeys To War

Platform waiting room commemorating its WWI Free Buffet

Those who were lucky enough to return from foreign parts were usually reluctant, understandably, to talk about the harsh realities of the fighting they had been engaged in, but for many it became over time almost a pleasure to recount to those who'd never left the village or the county their tales of foreign customs, foods and some of the non-combat related sights they had been exposed to through their journeys to war. 
Today's poem was mostly written in situ at Preston railway station a few years ago while I was waiting for a train to London, in company with some soldiers on their way to Camp Bastion, one dark and drizzly morning. The unsettling event happened just as described in the poem. Although British troops were stood down from combat duty in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, some five hundred  remain there still in an advisory and training capacity.
Preston Railway Station 2014
Early morning Preston stationdeep diesel purr vibratesthrough every fixture,would shake the fittings looseif not for the mixture of rustand oily soot of grimier times.
A constant mesmerising roarrumbles forebodings of warand soldiers sitting in the canteendecked out 'in memory of 1915'contemplate what awaits them,six months duty in Afghanistan.
The tart, distorted tannoy blastsgarbled soundbites of informationover bemused and bleary voyagerschewing dispiritedtheir curls of sandwicheswashed down with watery coffee
when suddenly a piercing klaxonblasts everyone out of the fugof reverie or resignationand all displays read:Leave the station immediatelyby your nearest exit.
Heaving kitbags to shouldersthey swear but trudge compliantto outface dawn's drizzling coldfor the duration of a security sweep,their part in history's fourth repeat*placed temporarily on hold.
* British troops in Afghanistan go back a long way; two Anglo-Afghan wars in the 19th century and a third at the end of WWI, plus involvement in WWII and then the most recent years-long campaign against the Taliban insurgency.

Thanks for reading, S ;-)

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