In the past two decades, there has been a general recognition that the two major wars of the twentieth century have passed into history, most who took part in them, or lived through them, are no longer alive. Put another way, other than their recorded testaments, we no longer can listen to eyewitness accounts of those events, and we have lost the possibility of asking questions of those who were there.
Today, as we commemorate VE Day, we need to ask about the effect of time passing on our view of these events – how we interpret them, and even how we manipulate them for our own ends in the 21st century.
For someone who can remember the 1950s, it is instructional to review the changes over time in attitude towards the two world wars, and to come to the realisation that “the hand of history”, to coin an unfortunate phrase, lies now upon those of us who received reminiscences of the wars at first hand.
In my childhood I remember seeing many old men with missing limbs or other disabilities, often on crutches or in wheelchairs. Because the war was seldom referenced, the source of their injuries never occurred to me. Like my peers, I read the stories of World War 2 in our comics, or saw war films, and we frequently drew aerial dog fights in the margins of our jotters – but none of this seemed much attached to real life – any more than did our games of cowboys and indians – they were just labels for our play.
It was many years later that I realised that around 70% of our teachers at school had fought in the war, a couple of them were members of The Few in the Battle of Britain – it was never mentioned.
Because my dad died when I was five, it fell to my mother to pass on details about his Great War involvement, in which he served on the home front because of polio as a child. Tasked with escorting German PoWs from Stob Camp near Hawick to Edinburgh or Stirling Castle or to work on the construction of Beecraigs Loch, he would detour to his own stair on Edinburgh’s Southside, so the prisoners could sample his mother’s Irish Stew.
Dad only joined up because his big brother, whom he idolised, had done so. The family, from the west of Ireland, were strong supporters of Irish Independence, and went along with the notion that if they fought for the rights of small countries, Ireland’s freedom would be assured after the Peace Treaties.
On then other hand, my mum’s uncle, who died in the last month of the Great War, had been a policeman in Liverpool and felt it was his duty to fight. Her dad, a postal supervisor in Liverpool’s main post office, was a Gunner with the Royal Garrison Artillery. When he was visiting us in Edinburgh in the 1950s, he would still dive for the pavement if he was in Princes St when the One o’clock Gun went off. His references to the War were limited to asking my mother to go over to Paschendaele in the 1930s and find the farmer whose family had provided his billet, so she could thank them. The first years of my mum’s life were spent travelling about England – from Portsea to Shoeburyness and other RGA outposts so her mum and dad could meet.
It was a reminder that there was no blanket reason espoused by those who fought – from patriotism, to peer pressure, out of boredom, economic need, or political belief, there were many impulses that built the BEF in the Great War.
In the second war, the need to defeat fascism was a much clearer motivational force, but we need to remind ourselves that again we are talking about thousands of individuals rather than an homogenous khaki mass.
So my first hand accounts of World War 2 came from my mother – who could speak with some authority, having lived through the May Blitz in Liverpool in 1941 and the extended bombing of the city for over two years.
As a keen student of history, I have since studied the story of Liverpool’s war, in which the figures, though horrifying, scarcely do justice to the renting of the fabric of the city. During the first eight days of May 1941, Merseyside was bombed on a nighty basis: 1900 people were killed, 1450 seriously injured and 70.000 made homeless.
Bit when I asked my mum to “tell me about the olden days”, I was asking about her own youth, and the tales she told me I just accepted as memories from when she was young. It took many years for me to seriously appreciate the reality of what she would describe to me in the most matter of fact fashion. And it seems to me that the best tribute I can pay – to her and to all who lived through that war – is to record what she told me in the same tone as she did.
For her, personally, the war’s effect was felt long before the official declaration of hostilities commencing.
She would be 21 in September 1938 and in those days a 21st was a cause for a formal dance and celebration. Such was the fear of war by the end of 1937 that there were serious discussions about whether they would be able to organise a 21st party for her, and would they not be better to cancel it until the position was clearer. It is a reminder of the strain under which folk lived well before September 1939 with air raid shelters being dug and blackouts prepared. However, that information always reminds me that my mum lost most of her twenties to the war, leaving, without doubt, a significant impact on her psyche.
She had been on holiday in Howth in August 1939 in the weeks leading up to the commencement of hostilities and had actually been given the choice whether to remain in neutral Ireland “for the duration” or return to Liverpool. I imagine there must have been times in the years ahead when she questioned her decision to come home to be with her parents, if only momentarily.
The priest at 11am Mass at Sacred Heart Church on September 3rd announced to the congregation that Britain was now at war, and Mum long remembered the gasps and tears of those around her.
She hurried home to find her mum and dad standing in the doorway. Grim faced they said to her: “God help you and your sister, having to face this disaster.” My mum’s sister had only been married a month at this stage.
Mum’s first question was how long would it last and their honest answer was that they had no idea: “We’re an island, we could be invaded and occupied and that would be it – under German occupation.”
The words stuck with her for the rest of her life – as did her mother’s mention of her little brother who had died nineteen years before aged only 11 months. He would have been in the earliest drafts for conscription. “Thank God he has been spared the horror of war, at least we know he is safe.” My mother reckoned it was at that point that they finally accepted the wee boy’s death.
Her tales of the war were so incredibly matter of fact that their horror only resonated with me much later when I could set them in context.
Rationing meant she would not see her favourite fruit – bananas – for six years, she had to feel her way home from work in the blackout, learning to recognise walls, doorways, and drainpipes as way markers on her route home.
A brick air raid shelter measuring eight feet square was built in their back yard. There was no lighting, and no light when torch batteries became unavailable, and they slept there each night that the Air Raid sirens sounded. Her mother was terrified and never put down her rosary beads, her dad was of little comfort when he said, as the bombs rained down, with his Gunner’s experience: ‘Don’t worry, love, you won’t hear the one that’s for you!”
He operated as an Air Raid Precautions Warden, so most nights he was not with them; he would return at 6am and report on all the damage in the area. For mum and my gran, each night raid was compounded by the terror of hearing bombs exploding nearby and not knowing where it was, what had been hit, or if grandad had been in the vicinity.
Mum remembered individual raids, quite clearly, forty years later: the night all the windows and doors were blown in but happily the budgie and the goldfish survived; the night when Prescot Street, a five minute walk away, near their church, was bombed and hundreds killed. She recounted the horror of the Saturday night bombing of an ammunition train in the Clubmoor sidings near Anfield. The damage was devastating and all next day at church, and afterwards, they could hear ammunition exploding sending shrapnel into nearby houses and buildings.
She remembered leaving home to go to work one morning and seeing, in a neighbouring terraced street, a house completely flattened – with only a canary singing in a cage remaining above street level, and the houses on either side undamaged apart from smashed windows. This became her normal.
Another time they were evacuated for a few days to her sister’s house in suburban Childwall because of an unexploded bomb at the top of their street.
She talked about “the May Blitz”, but never in detail – she said it was too terrifying to recall fully, but she remembered that the light of the fires in the sky was bright enough to enable her to read.
From time to time she would mention a friend or acquaintance and say simply: “He was killed in the war.” I think she carried a lot of memories of smiling young boys from parish dances whose lives were taken from them in the height of their youth.
She would remark on the friendliness of the Liverpool people during the war, adding “but they had always been like that” and she knew that crime figures almost doubled, that looting was rife even in the midst of the air raids, that many made fortunes from the Black Market, and others took advantage of the chaos for their own ends.
Her mother had prayed continuously that she would live long enough to witness the end of air raid sirens and all clears. Her prayers were answered – but she died, only 59, of a cerebral haemorrhage three months later. Mum was convinced it was her terror through the war years that eventually hastened her death.
Of the end of the war `Mum said simply: “We had eventually VE and VJ Days.”
The older I get and the more I reflect, the greater is my awe at what she and her peers lived through.
It is easy, in a way, to fill up emotionally, looking at those pictures of brylcreemed twenty year olds racing across the grass towards fighter planes, or be stunned by the unalloyed bravery of the bomber crews who made their nightly journeys into anti-aircraft fire over Germany.
These are iconic reminders of what courage looks like, but VE Day should remind us of another kind of bravery and resilience – the fortitude of those who put up with it all because they had no choice, the child seeking his parents in a heap of rubble, the man returning home to find his house disappeared, the flinching of women in corrugated iron air raid shelters as they wondered at the chances of surviving the night. Certainty and familiarity gone, the future impossible to contemplate, the past too awful to remember; the everyday smells of home replaced by fire and burning and smoke and dust, the empty chair by the fire, the relation nobody can bear to mention, the guilt at letting gran go into the house to make the tea just before the landmine landed on the roof, all the regrets, and the lost chances, the bombed out cinemas and disappeared streets, slates tumbling and bricks crumbled to red dust, the fear – always the fear – of bombs and landmines, and the awful question that began: “Have you seen……?”
My mother was never one to describe the war as our “Finest Hour” or “Us against the rest.” Nobody living in the north of England could doubt the role played by the Americans, Canadians and Poles amongst others in helping the Allies to a close run victory – but then, by May 1945, the people who had lived through the war were not using words like “triumph” and “victory”. They were certainly glad not to have lost the war, and there was a pride in the contribution of all who had made it possible, but the major emotion was one of relief, and an amount of disbelief that it could all be over.
The cartoon version of VE Day, with everyone partying wildly in the streets was a little like the current depiction of the 60s as being filled with hippies getting stoned – yes there were some, but for the most part people were just getting on with their ordinary lives.
There was a reason why those who lived through the war were reluctant to talk about it. To them it didn’t feel like their greatest moment – no matter how politicians might attempt to paint it that way. It is no coincidence that the fewer who are alive to remember the war in reality, the more there are who are willing to repaint it in its brightest colours.
For every one at a party on this night 75 years ago, there were tens of thousands who weren’t.
They were sitting in the house, holding on desperately to whatever remained of what they had loved. They were remembering the before, bewildered by the now, and confused by the future. Their relief was calm and their memories painful. They couldn’t face a party because they couldn’t face the empty spaces at the table and the aching hole blasted into their future plans.
They would have been incredulous if they could have seen future politicians, devoid of empathy or emotional intelligence, hijacking their grief as a sign of Great Britishness. Their most fervent hope would have been that their descendants could be spared a world in which political and economic capital is made out of the propensity to kill.
But then, they knew what they were talking about. They knew War.
My mum always referred to her little brother as “The Boy”, and always recalled her parents’ relief that at least his premature death meant he would be spared “the horror of war”.
There will be no bunting on my house, no Vera Lynn records, or 1940s fashions, no marketing of a generation’s grief.
I’ll be thinking of “The Boy” and all the other boys – and girls – who would not see the decade in which I was born – and their families, who would be hard pressed to think of 1939-45 as “Our Finest Hour.”
Whatever it was – it does not belong to us, it belongs to them – and we should stop trying to steal it and bring it into our world.
Our best tribute to them all is to create the world for which they died fighting, rather than envying them their opportunity to die.