Syd Metcalfe (B.1910): War, Memory & Life Writing

Our world was without meaning.”

Syd Metcalfe, ‘One Speck of Humanity’

Evacuation of Dunkirk
Evacuation of Dunkirk

War. War never changes. Syd Metcalfe’s earliest memories were of death and war. As the Zeppelins bombed London, he awoke to find ‘a blaze of light pouring into the room from both back and front’ (9). Syd Metcalfe was no coward, not at four-years-old. He did not ‘easily panic, but there was no mistaking the urgency in mother’s voice’ (9) as the Zeppelins dropped a string of fire bombs. Rationing, too, scarred Metcalfe’s mind, as it was ‘most severe’ (18). He remembers when rumours shot around the neighbourhood: ‘the corner shop has a supply of coal in’ (18) and he and brother Arthur would be sent out to obtain the family’s pitiful quota of seven-pounds worth of coal.

It is interesting to note Metcalfe’s blasé and child-like concept of war, describing how his father left his family and ‘went off to do battle with Kaiser Bill’ (9) before being invalided out of the army with ‘trench fever and shrapnel wounds.’ (19) He never, to Metcalfe’s knowledge, ‘ever spoke of that war again.’ (19) Later, Metcalfe was the experience a war of his own.

‘One Speck of Humanity’ is filled with fascinating tidbits of information on army life: turning out, spud-bashing (potato peeling to civvies), attacked by fighter-bombers, the day-to-day monotony which comes from sitting beneath a baking hot sun not warring with the enemy. Metcalfe goes as far to say ‘[a]nyone not playing some game or other would have found their day terribly long and boring’ (163). One time, when he and the boys were playing hockey they heard the familiar, terrifying crack of a sniper rifle. One man was downed. The rest sucked dirt as the sniper took pot-shots at them Some years later, at the evacuation of Dunkirk, Metcalfe found himself in similar circumstances, laying prone on the ground awaiting ‘the shock of a hot bullet as it tore into [their] flesh.’ (163)

This second time I could very well have thought ‘This is getting to become a habit.’ But I was in no mood for flippancy. I was scared.”

Syd Metcalfe, ‘One Speck of Humanity’

As the Germans advanced through France, Metcalfe and the rest of the men fled. One dive bomber destroyed one of the trucks, rendering their equipment useless. They were attacked again and again and ‘the remaining three trucks were hit and set on fire.’ (163) During this bombing attack time Metcalfe remembers a radio playing ‘popular music of the day, familiar tunes, and then midst the noise and smoke of bursting bombs, with death and destruction all around us we were advised by an advertiser to smoke a particular brand of cigarettes.’ (164) Metcalfe quips, ‘I wished our choice of cigarettes could be our greatest worry.’ (164) By this point, he admits to a ‘general feeling that the war was virtually over, that [he] was taking part in a debacle. The orderliness that had been so much a part of army life up till then had disintegrated.’ (165) He stood at the shore, ‘odds and ends of all kinds floating in the sea, with the occasional dead soldier here and there,’ (165) as columns of smoke rose over Dunkirk. Metcalfe seemingly remained unfazed, perhaps gripped by terror and the fight for life. Several times he swam for the escape ships as soldiers sank around him. He watched one young soldier drowning, saying ‘[t]here was nothing I could do about it. It was all I could do to keep afloat… That lad died that day with a thousand rescuers ‘standing by’ unable to help him.’ (166)

This is not a boy’s own story. Metcalfe never pretends to be a Hollywood Hero, but nor is he a coward. Belly to the ground with the rat-tat-tat barrage of machine gunning overhead, he thinks ‘You’re under fire, Syd, and you’re not frightened. Good.’ (168) This was interesting, having always wondered what his reaction to that situation might be. There is no sign of Metcalfe being scarred by the war. Years later he doesn’t wax lyrical about army life. No purple prose on the horrors of war, the thousand-yard stare, the dead friends. There is a sense, in fact, that the army was just another job though he admits that soldiering wasn’t really his bag, and it was a job he did admirably. He was just a speck blown by the winds of humanity, like all other lives with whom he came into contact.


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