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Fixing my mental health with my grandfather's old map

Graham Coult's grandfather's map

The map. Image: courtesy of Graham Coult

Through adolescence and adulthood, I have had patches when life became overbearing. A number of years ago, after a single unimportant event left me helpless, I had to admit that I needed help. I found it unusual to see a doctor for mental health, but it should be seen as normal as it is for any illness.

When I told my parents about what I’d been going through, my mum told me a story about my grandfather’s experience of the Second World War that would give me a whole new perspective on mental health, as well as spark an interest in my grandfather’s past, with the help of his old map. 

In 1941, the German army pushed south to Greece and a small force of the British Army, along with Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, were posted to reinforce the Greek army ahead of a suspected attack. But the allied forces were quickly overrun and my grandfather, John Robert Jones, was one of 7,000 soldiers captured as prisoners of war. He and the other captives were marched across the length of Greece in the punishing heat and many of his fellow captives, as well as a few German soldiers, collapsed and died. Finally, they were crammed into cattle wagons where they stood cheek by jowl for the remainder of the journey to the internment camps. John ended up at Stalag18A prison camp in Wolfsberg, Austria.

My grandfather tried to organise a mass breakout but, after warnings that any escapee would be shot, many captives withdrew from the plan. But on Easter Sunday John and only one another captive managed to escape, staying close to the camp initially to confuse the German soldiers before striking out east. My mum showed me the tatty old map of Europe with a faint blue line running through it that had belonged to my grandfather. He used this map to guide him as he fled on foot, covering a distance of nearly 2,000km from Austria to Odessa in Ukraine.

Graham Coult's grandfather
Graham’s grandfather. Image: courtesy of Graham Coult

I can’t imagine what my grandfather must have gone through along that journey, but we know that the return to civilian life was not straightforward for him or many others of his generation. My mum remembers my grandfather crying out in his sleep.

I felt compelled to do something to memorialise my grandfather’s journey and the struggles many people experienced. I decided to cycle across Europe, following the route my grandfather took, guided by his old map. I convinced my friend Charles Henderson, a London Air Ambulance paramedic, to join me to raise awareness around the need for proper mental health support and to raise money for our chosen charities, including the children’s charity Coram and London’s Air Ambulance Charity.

Our starting point was Stalag18A, where my grandfather spent four years, but as we were unable to reach Ukraine due to the war, we headed to Greece where he was initially captured. Taking the most direct route outlined on the map meant that we weren’t always cycling through mountains and beautiful vineyards but often along the main arterial routes through Europe. 

We had a few near misses cycling through a gorge in Bulgaria. Our plan was to cross from Hungary into Serbia but when we reached the border, we weren’t allowed to cross because we had British, non-EU passports. This forced us to replot and cross from Hungary into Romania instead. 

One day, cycling through rural Romania in the cold and driving rain, we were soaked to the bone but luckily found a little cafe to shelter in. The owner happened to be from Scotland, and he offered to take us back to our hotel in his car. When I think of my grandfather’s journey, he must have received help from kind strangers along the way to have survived at all.

As we reached Greece, both Charles and I started to notice a sense that our bodies were giving up when the end was in sight. It was an emotional moment as we arrived in Thessaloniki, and we stopped at a local restaurant on the Main Street. To our great surprise we were greeted by the Greek prime
minister, who happened to be there! 

Graham Coult and Charles Henderson with the then-Greek PM
Coult (left) and Henderson flank the then-PM of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Image: Graham Coult

My grandfather died when I was young so the map that was so precious for his escape, as well as other photos and documents from that time that he had carefully preserved, are a powerful physical connection to him.

My mum has said that I am like my grandfather. Like him, I am also an engineer and I have inherited his carpentry tools that I have reconditioned and use today. I feel honoured to tell my grandfather’s story to pay tribute to the sacrifices his generation made and to call for better mental health support today. 

rideformentalhealth.co.uk

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