WEEK END­ING

Yorkshire Post - - FEATURES & COMMENT -

IT IS a me­mo­rial week­end like no other: a cen­tury since the armistice ended four years of slaugh­ter on the West­ern Front, and an op­por­tu­nity to re­flect, among much else, on the sac­ri­fices of a gen­er­a­tion.

It was HG Wells who was said to have called it the War to End Wars, as early as 1914, but of course, he spoke too soon, and it was to be a mere 21 years that would punc­tu­ate the end of the first con­flict and the be­gin­ning of the next one.

For my gen­er­a­tion of so-called baby boomers, born in the years fol­low­ing the Sec­ond World War, the mem­o­ries of its af­ter­math are still pal­pa­ble, and I am struck, not just this year but ev­ery Re­mem­brance Sun­day, by how quickly the for­tunes and ex­pec­ta­tions of each suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tion has im­proved.

We have our par­ents and their par­ents to thank for that. Some 20 years sep­a­rated my fa­ther and my mother’s fa­ther, and they both served in the sec­ond con­flict – my dad as a young nav­i­ga­tor with the RAF, posted to Pales­tine dur­ing the fi­nal two years, and my grand­dad as a sig­naller with the Royal In­fantry, who found him­self in Nor­mandy a month af­ter D-Day.

Both sur­vived to tell their sto­ries, although, like so many of their com­rades, they sel­dom did. Time has not di­min­ished the enor­mity of the sac­ri­fice they all made.

Serv­ing their coun­try, which for prac­ti­cal pur­poses meant be­ing up­rooted forcibly from their fam­i­lies, friends and jobs and be­ing sent away with no cer­tainty that they would re­turn, is a com­mit­ment that would be sim­ply un­con­scionable to any­one of their age to­day. A per­son so do­ing would be con­sid­ered re­mark­able, and rightly so.

Yet in their time, it just made them or­di­nary.

The ad­vance we have made as a so­ci­ety in no longer liv­ing un­der the threat of con­scrip­tion, of mak­ing sac­ri­fi­cial lambs of our young, should never be lost on us, nor taken for granted.

None of my older rel­a­tives can now speak for them­selves, but some left be­hind mem­oirs from which I can be­gin to piece to­gether their shared ex­pe­ri­ence. The sen­ti­ments, if not the de­tails, will be fa­mil­iar to ev­ery fam­ily.

My grand­fa­ther’s view of the army had been shaped by that of his own fa­ther, with whom he shared a fore­name. Harry se­nior had been 38 when the first war be­gan, but he was not too old to go to the front. He re­turned with shel­lshock and was said never to have been the same per­son as the one who went out, filled with pa­tri­o­tism and op­ti­mism. He died at 58.

Harry ju­nior was al­ready a man­ager at Bod­ding­ton’s Brew­ery when, in 1939, he was trained in Morse Code. He was adept at en­cod­ing mes­sages but less so at tran­scrib­ing them back into English, and so, ejected from the Royal Corps of Sig­nals, he spent the rest of the war as 1149580 Gun­ner In­gle, H.

He man­aged to get home on leave a few times af­ter Arn­hem as the tide turned in the Al­lies’ favour. My mother never for­got the aw­ful in­evitabil­ity that those brief vis­its would have to end.

He spoke only once of his ex­pe­ri­ences. Two com­rades had been blown up by a mine in front of him. He man­aged to keep his head down. As the re­main­ing troops left the area, they found two cows in a field. Their French own­ers had left or been killed, and the an­i­mals needed milk­ing. An­other com­rade of Harry’s had been a farmer and he set to work. They kept the cows with them for an­other cou­ple of days be­fore they had to let them go.

It was the milk­ing, not the loss of the oth­ers in his unit, that he had cho­sen to re­count. He took the worst of his mem­o­ries to his grave, and again, he was not yet 60 when he did so.

Their sto­ries were not un­usual. Ev­ery ser­vice­man and woman had tales of their own, told or un­told, and many were very much more har­row­ing. Their sac­ri­fices were made so that my gen­er­a­tion and those that fol­lowed would not have to grow up in the knowl­edge that one day we might fol­low them.

With each pass­ing year, the sto­ries be­come more dis­tant, but if we for­get them we lose sight of our­selves. That’s why, in the two min­utes of per­sonal re­mem­brance to­mor­row and ev­ery Novem­ber 11, I choose to re­flect on them and to bow my head in re­spect for those who told them and for those who did not re­turn to tell.

On this cen­te­nary year, that is more im­por­tant than ever.

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