On the 11th of November, 100 years will have passed since the guns fell silent in France, marking the end of the First World War. The Great War. The War to End All Wars. Since I’ve been writing historical fiction set in that era, I wanted to commemorate this tragic and momentous period by dedicating my blog each week until the 100th anniversary to the voices who have moved so many of you, the voices who were impacted greatly by the violence and destruction of the First World War and the peace that followed. Although fictionalized, these characters’ recollections evoke a true sense of the devastation and the lives undone.
(Johnny Barlow is a minor character from None of Us the Same, the first book in my First World War & 1920s trilogy.)
Mr Barlow, you’re not an easy man to find.
Aye, ’tis both the blessing and the curse of keeping a lighthouse, b’y. The neighbors are few and the visitors far between. But I was brought up to this life and it suits me well. Now, sit yerself here in my office—I’ve a bit of work to do while we gab.
You grew up at this lighthouse? Your father was keeper here, too?
That he was. <takes out a yellowed meerschaum pipe and packs it> More than 80 lights, right up and down the coast of Newfoundland. Most on this side, the east coast, facing out to sea and down south, lookin’ out over the Grand Banks. A few on the Gulf of St Lawrence, too—opposite the Quebec coast. <lights pipe> Some have been kept by the same family for three generations. I heard tell from the pilot of the Lighthouse Service boat just last month that Jim Cantwell down at Cape Spear took on his b’y Billy as assistant—that’ll make four generations for them. <puffs for a few moments> My father was the first Barlow here, started as an assistant keeper when he was 18, then took the light when the old keeper passed. I was born here, in the bed chamber just down the stairs and off the kitchen. My eldest b’y, Teddy, he was born in that very room and I’ve hopes he’ll be assistant keeper in five or six years—take over the light when my days are o’er.
May I help with cleaning—well, they look like the glass chimneys from kerosene lamps?
That’d be what they are—or close enough to it, b’y. There are six—three pairs to be accurate—of kerosene lamps up on the light deck. They rotate every 10 seconds, with five seconds between each pair’s flash. See that a third o’ the chimneys are red? One pair has red, the other two clear. Here, look on this chart. This is our point and here’s the markings for the light. Read those out.
It looks like “Fl WRW 5s 15M”?
That’s our signal. The light shows white-red-white, with a flash every five seconds. And it can be seen from 15 miles out to sea. Well, on a good night—and we’ve precious few of those, especially in winter.
I had a visit with your sister, Viola, down in St. John’s before heading up the coast to see you. She mentioned her son, your nephew Jack, and his friends have gone off to the war with the Newfoundland Regiment?
Aye. <puffs slowly while staring out the window> The lads were here for a summer holiday when word came the fighting had commenced over in Europe. They’ve been coming up every year for three or four weeks since they were 12 years old and just out of short pants. Good lads all, especially our Jackie. A coastal freighter was passin’—the Lizzie Lindsay, if I recall justly—and she was showin’ an odd sort of flag signal on her foremast. My boy Teddy spotted it and ran up here to the Lloyd’s Book, right there, next to the flag case, and ciphered it out. “Declaration of War—Germany” it said. <gazes off again, out to sea>
I take it you didn’t altogether approve of their enlistment?
They talked it around for a day or so, but anyone could see they were hellbent to go off and have a grand adventure. Isn’t that the way of all young men? They were all just out of school—18 or 19, the four oldest. Young Toby was only 16. I let them take their own counsel—they were men, if only just. I had a talk right here with my nephew Jack right here in this room. He sat on that very stool you’re on now.
What did you share with him from your experience?
Well, I haven’t spent all my years here. After my parents sent my sister away… Vi and I were as close as could be and it was painful hard for me here without her. She met Jack’s pa just a few months after goin’ down to St. John’s. I’ve not met him, but those that have tell me her Rick is as good a man as draws breath. But I was puffed up with anger and stalked off and signed on a freighter workin’ the Atlantic trade. That wasn’t far enough for me, so I jumped ship in Portsmouth and took the Queen’s shilling. I spent eight years as a Tar in the Royal Navy and saw some fighting on the China Station. They put a few hundred of us ashore in China and handed us rifles we didn’t know how to use, then marched us off to put down some rebellion by the natives. French and Germans with us, too. I saw Christian men do things there I’ll not forget ’til I breathe my last. Precious little glory comes of war, from what I’ve seen. But Jackie wouldn’t desert his mates, and I suppose I knew that right along. They’re in France now, I’m told, after seein’ some ugliness in Gallipoli and losin’ some close to them.
Have you seen or heard of any changes here, since the War began?
There’s more ship traffic, to be sure. I’ve never been kept more up to date, what with Lighthouse Service and other ships haulin’ up in the cove below, the masters and crew dyin’ to pass on the latest news from France and all. Every one of them a self-appointed expert on all manner of military affairs. With the Germans and their submarines, we’ve seen merchant ships running for the coast—had one sunk well out but still within sight when she started burnin’. And of course with a war on, any ship or boat that can haul cod is out in the Banks fishin’. I hear tell there’s good money bein’ made by anyone who can put bait to hook and throw a line overboard.
What do you see for the future? When the fighting is done?
Not much changes here. Other than the weather, and that might be hourly. <chuckles> The b’ys—Jack and his mates, all the others that went off to fight—they’ll be changed and likely never be the same. But godspeed them home and we’ll welcome them with open arms. ’Twill be grand to have the lads back up here, once they come back. I sure hope they make the time for us. My young ones will want to hear all the stories from the War—and Jackie can spin a yarn with the best of ’em. Late at night, when I’m up the light to wind the weights or change a wick, I find time to pray that the Lord will bring them back safe to us. I don’t reckon it would be right to ask for more than that, do you?
(While those fighting in the trenches or made refugees by the movements of vast armies suffered greatly, the Home Front in the First World War was asked to make sacrifices, too. Every hand was turned to supporting the war effort, including in all the dominions of the British Empire. Newfoundland, England’s first overseas colony that predated Jamestown by 14 years, was rich with timber inland and cod at sea—two products of great value to the Allies. In every combatant nation, women assumed jobs vacated by the millions of men in uniform. Even after the Armistice, the great social changes necessitated by the war effort meant things would never be quite the same again. As for the Newfoundland lighthouse keepers, their lonely and proud tradition of service to those who go down to the sea in ships continues with a handful of manned lights still remaining, although the great majority of lighthouses have been completely automated.)