When I visited my mother, earlier this year, it was around the period of Armistice Day, so we duly watched the British Legion event at the Albert Hall, the Remembrance Sunday ceremony in Whitehall and the ceremony in Westminster Abbey centred around the tomb of the Unknown Warrior. We also wore our poppies when out shopping. As did most people of all ages that we saw around us.
At all these ceremonies and in all the commentaries upon them, we kept hearing the word 'sacrifice'...these men and women who 'sacrificed' their lives to protect or defend their country. Mother will have none of it, and I think she is right. They did not sacrifice themselves, they were killed. We don't hear of civilians 'sacrificing' themselves....but they were killed too.
For mother, who volunteered for the Auxiliary Territorial Service -the ATS - the second world war war had two aspects...the difficult conditions and the liberty that, as a woman, she had never enjoyed before 1939.
She remembers, shortly before volunteering, she was walking the Surrey downs when a lone German 'plane began to strafe a bus that was ahead of her on the road. She dropped into a hollow and kept her head down, watching the shadow of the plane as it passed on. There were the fears of invasion, when even the women in the army were taught how to use a rifle, concrete tank traps on all the roads to the south coast and the signposts taken away. The slogan 'Take one with you.' The rumours of German paratroopers disguised as nuns and the ribald jokes associated with their identification. David Niven opening his Christmas present from a female Hollywood star in the Greenjackets' mess and finding it was a hand knitted willy warmer. Travelling to York on a train with no lights, kept upright only by the crush of men and their kitbags...a jamjar of tea coloured purple by the golden syrup used to sweeten it passed in through a window. Working in London in a glassed in building while doodlebugs dropped all around the area...coming out of the British Restaurant and seeing a doodlebug flying up the road ahead of her, shooting just over the railway lines, while Italian prisoners of war hooted and jeered at the British dropping to the ground. A terrible night of bombing while she was at King's Cross railway terminus...the stampede of people when the gates to the platform opened, and the feeling of bodies under foot as she was swept onto the train by the crowd. Seeing the endless lorries heading down to the south coast before D Day, troops giving the 'V' sign as they passed. Going with friends to the bombed out houses of their families to try to rescue what they could from the mess..only allowed near at all because they were in uniform. The misery of friends whose fiances had been killed.
But she was also revelling in the freedom of being released from the narrow world of before the conflict. She met people from social groups she would never otherwise have encountered, made friends, travelled the country, learned skills and gained a confidence which has never left her. She and her friends could even go into a pub without being regarded as prostitutes. She says she found that she wasn't just a woman, she was a person, and that she was valued for what she could do rather than just for where she stood in society.
Nowadays, she wonders whether the 'sacrifice', the killing, was worthwhile. The society she knew has changed radically, the opportunities the post war generation demanded and obtained have evaporated and poverty and ignorance again haunt society. She asks herself if, after all these years, life would have been very different if the Germans had won, or Britain had surrendered after Dunkirk.
There is the serious answer...but there is also the lighter side.
Every New Year's Eve, the German nation gathers round its' television screens for a particular programme and, if German hegemony had been established in the U.K., the British nation would no doubt be gathered likewise...to watch
'Dinner for One'.
Check it out on Youtube and see why Britain had to win the war.
Retired, I'd lived in France for about twenty years after leaving the U.K.
Tired of listening to the 'living the dream' nonsense, tired of people shooting my rooks, I thought it was time to spill some beans from the cassoulet.
And having spilled the beans, I'm starting on the rice...out here in Costa Rica.