How six siblings went to war: Blinded by the Japanese, stranded in the jungle, bombed in the Blitz, the Walker family endured all the horrors of war. Now a gripping account by one granddaughter reveals how they ALL survived…
- To War With The Walkers is Annabel Venning’s account of family’s wartime life
- It covers the harrowing experiences of her grandfather Walter and five siblings
- The six children had a cheerful, sporty, middle-class upbringing in Devon
BOOK OF THE WEEK
TO WAR WITH THE WALKERS
by Annabel Venning (Hodder, £20, 336pp)
So many thousands of books have been written about World War II that at times you wonder if there can be anything new or original left to say.
To War With The Walkers is Annabel Venning’s account of the wartime experiences of her grandfather Walter and his five siblings. Although it covers well-trodden ground — the Blitz, Dunkirk, the fighting in the Far East and the horrors of Japanese prisoner of war camps — the fortunes of this ordinary family have been woven into a heart-pounding narrative that feels fresh.
The six Walker children had a cheerful, sporty, middle-class upbringing in Devon. Edward, the oldest, attended Sandhurst along with the actor David Niven, remembered as being ‘very naughty’, before joining the 8th Punjab Regiment in India in 1929. Walter, the second oldest, also headed for India, joining the 8th Gurkhas.
Peter, the most mischievous of the brothers, became a tea planter in Assam. The fourth brother, Harold, trained as a doctor while his sister Ruth became a nurse. Beatrice, a beauty with famously shapely legs, worked in a clothes shop and did some modelling for Norman Hartnell while she waited for the right husband to come along.
To War With The Walkers is Annabel Venning’s account of the wartime experiences of her grandfather Walter and his five siblings (pictured)
When war broke out Ruth, the youngest of the Walkers, was in the thick of it, dealing with casualties from Dunkirk and tending pilots who had been horribly burned in the Battle of Britain. Ruth, who would have made a top-notch doctor if she had been born in a different era, was impressively level-headed.
She was alone one night on the ward when a Dunkirk survivor, probably suffering flashbacks, threatened to cut her throat with a razor, Ruth coolly pointed out he wasn’t wearing his slippers. ‘He looked down and said, ‘Oh dear’. And he put the cut-throat razor on the desk and went to get his slippers,’ she recalled.
St Thomas’s Hospital in London, where both Harold and Ruth worked, was bombed a total of ten times during the war. In September 1940 Ruth, sheltering in the basement, was trapped by falling masonry. She resigned herself to death but was saved by a rescue party which included her brother.
A week later, Harold had his own narrow escape when the hospital was hit again. He was unconscious for a week but made a remarkable recovery; the incident left him with the firm conviction that his life had been spared for a reason.
On the other side of the world, Walter was among the troops trying to halt the Japanese advance in Burma. This hopeless endeavour led to the Army’s withdrawal to India, ‘the longest retreat in British military history, a harrowing exodus of a thousand miles through jungle, over mountains and across rivers.’
When they reached India, gaunt and exhausted, Walter and his comrades were treated with disdain, although their escape had been just as remarkable as Dunkirk. Walter, a born soldier, did not let the experience crush him. He was put in command of a Gurkha battalion as they fought to drive the Japanese back out of Burma. Venning, who remembers Walter as a twinkly-eyed grandfather, was dismayed to discover that some of his men considered him a bully and a tyrant. ‘He had that relatively rare attribute of not needing to be liked,’ she reflects.
The six Walker children had a cheerful, sporty, middle-class upbringing in Devon (Pictured, Harold, 17, Walter, 20, Bee, 21, Edward, 23, Peter, 18, Arthur, Ruth, 14 and Dorothea in 1933)
Gradually, Walter won his men over and gained respect for his tactical cunning. After weeks of savage fighting, his Gurkhas took more and more territory until finally ‘they realised that the only Japanese remaining in the village were twisted, torn bodies’. Noticing a large force moving towards them, Walter’s disciplined and well-drilled men held their fire — and realised the approaching soldiers were not Japanese but men from their own brigade.
Older brother Edward also had a good war and, like Walter, was awarded the DSO. Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, he was in command of a battalion which fought in Italy through a savagely cold winter until the Germans surrendered in May 1945.
In one town he and his men liberated, he was greeted by the mayor carrying a white flag in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other.
The youngest Walker brother, Peter, who had no interest in being a soldier, had nonetheless volunteered, leaving behind his polo ponies, his dog and his pet otter. He was one of 130,000 men taken prisoner when Singapore fell.
Peter’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war, which included working on the infamous Thai-Burma railway, make for gruelling reading.
Before the war, an Indian fakir had told him he would go through the darkest of times but would come through. This, along with the Walker family motto of ‘Nil Desperandum’, never despair, somehow gave him the strength to survive. As an officer, he tried to look after his men in the camps. When one of them was being beaten by a guard, Peter intervened. He was beaten in turn and was then ‘tied to a stake with his head tilted upwards and made to stare into the sun.
As the sun moved in the sky, so he was rotated on the stake.’ Ordered to keep his eyes open at all times, he could barely see by the time he was cut down, and his retinas were permanently damaged.
TO WAR WITH THE WALKERS by Annabel Venning (Hodder, £20, 336pp)
When news finally came of the Japanese surrender and the guards laid down their arms — grotesquely offering to shake hands because ‘now we are friends’ — the prisoners broke into ‘Land Of Hope And Glory’, ‘God Save The King’ and ‘Jerusalem’. Astonishingly, they did not take reprisals against the sadistic guards. In October 1945, Peter finally returned home.
Somehow, all the Walkers had survived the war. The only family member who died was Beatrice’s wealthy American husband, an Anglophile who had joined the RAF and was lost in a plane crash over the Atlantic in 1945.
During peacetime Walter prospered, ending his career in a senior NATO role, and was knighted. Edward was less successful in his army career. Ruth married the family friend whom she had loved for years, but was widowed in her 40s.
Harold, determined to put his miraculously spared life to good use, became a hospital consultant and a pioneer in the field of obstetrics.
Peter, unsurprisingly, never fully recovered from the horrors he had endured. He suffered terrible flashbacks and his children wondered why he was always angry. He eventually found happiness with his second wife and was reconciled with his children.
He never envied his brothers: ‘Peter carried with him a sense of quiet triumph and confidence; he had seen and suffered things that they could not even imagine.’
Venning, a journalist who contributes to the Daily Mail, juggles all these different stories and locations with ease, weaving it into an engrossing whole. As well as a portrait of the world at war, this marvellous book also depicts a world that was soon to vanish.
By the time the war was over, the mighty British Empire was on its last legs. The views on class and race held by the Walkers, and by most other Britons, were about to be swept away, and a good thing too. Yet seeing the war through the Walkers’ eyes, you realise what a truly extraordinary generation it was, and how much we owe them.
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