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Ripping Yarn. Great-Uncle Harry: A Tale of War and Empire By Michael Palin - Review by Roger Lewis

Blog | By Roger Lewis | Nov 06, 2023

Michael Palin and Munzer Fahmy

War is the making (as well as the unmaking – obviously) of millions of people. Sir Michael Palin’s great-uncle, born in 1884, was one such.

Expected to be ‘another fine, respectable, hard-working son of the Empire’, Harry failed to amount to anything. He was, says his great- nephew in this poignant tribute, ‘a drifter, a free, if not always happy, spirit [who went] where the wind blew him’.

His restless nature found a sort of solace or focus in military drill, fatigues, bayonet fighting, trench digging and route marches. This book, compiled from Palin family letters, diaries, and other memorabilia, is the portrait of a man who never once complained about privation, who accepted his lot – crammed troopships, a bad diet, primitive sanitation behind the lines, lice, flies, rats, dysentery: ‘Visiting the

latrines a good deal today’, is the extent of Harry’s comments. When he had pleurisy and was painted with iodine, he made no fuss about it.

War gave Harry direction and purpose. Though ‘Lance Corporal Palin was a very small fry in a very big war’, it is perhaps the insignificance, the stoical ordinariness, that holds the appeal and makes this project ultimately so moving – what Sir Michael calls the ‘overwhelming, intolerable, long- continued pain’.

Harry was born in Herefordshire, the youngest child of Edward Palin (1825-1903), an Oxford don and, latterly, croquet-playing vicar of the parish of Linton, near Ross-on-Wye, in what is here called a ‘poor and unspectacular farming community’.

His mother was an Irish American named Brita Gallagher. Unlike his brothers, Harry did not excel at Shrewsbury, where the role models were generals, governors, politicians and leaders of industry.

In 1904, he was found aboard a ship heading for India, where Harry became a minor functionary on the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, which extended to 30,000 miles of track financed by British capital. This didn’t last, and Harry was next employed on a tea plantation.

Managers found him again unsatisfactory: ‘Mr Palin does not appear to be exerting himself to any great extent.’

Though ‘life in India was a potential crash course in finding out what life could offer beyond the protective walls of home’, Harry’s next stop was

New Zealand, as a farm hand. ‘If he’d been lucky,’ says Sir Michael,

‘Harry might have seen whales, as I did, when I travelled on this same road in 1996.’ Padding out the narrative slightly, Sir Michael says, ‘Harry and his fellow workers would surely have taken the odd beer or two.’ It is a sign of the thinness of the author’s documentary resources that many sentences contain ‘would doubtless’, ‘would most likely’, ‘would certainly’, ‘would probably’ and ‘would presumably’.

As with Harry himself, matters perk up when we are told he joined the 14,000 New Zealanders volunteering for the Expeditionary Force in August 1914, ‘answering the call to travel halfway round the world to defend the Empire’.

Harry’s ship weighed anchor in September, with the new recruits accompanied by 3,818 horses.

He was destined to participate in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, where, despite blithe expectations, the Turks were not an easy foe to defeat:

‘We heard for the first time that sickening soft thud of shell fragments and bullets meeting human flesh.’

Retreating from the heat and dust of the Dardanelles, Harry and his regiment were ordered to the Western Front, where they saw action on the Somme – 19,240 men were slaughtered on the first morning, almost as many as had been killed in the entire Boer War.

Harry, in the papers Palin has found, never mentioned the bombardments, the ‘sizzling stream of machine-gun fire’ or the rotting unburied corpses. Instead, he simply recorded receiving, ‘Two pairs of socks from mother.’ Carting ammunition about the trenches was merely a ‘really ticklish job as snipers busy’.

Great-Uncle Harry turns into a celebration of British grit, phlegm, spunk and understatement, qualities that Sir Michael, along with the late Terry Jones, used to parody affectionately in Ripping Yarns. Here, however, the mood is serious and the subject, in the end, is nothing less than human waste, when, in the chaos of battle, ‘all normal emotion is numbed utterly’.

On 27th September 1916, Harry, aged 32, was obliterated by a shell burst. There’s no grave, only an inscription on a memorial wall: ‘Known Unto God.’

Sir Michael feels guilty he never paid homage sooner, but ‘along came Life of Brian and A Fish Called Wanda’.

Nonetheless, there are abiding affinities. Harry was 5ft 11in and weighed 12 stone, ‘both numbers being exactly the same as mine at that age’.

Poor Harry also possessed an atrophied testicle, which created difficulties with girls. I assume Sir Michael was spared that inheritance. To quote one of his own sentences, ‘I’m into a tantalising area of supposition here.’

Roger Lewis’s Erotic Vagrancy: Everything About Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor is out in October