I’ve already written about how much of powerful force history is, that it teaches us much about who we are and what we can be. I’ve also mentioned about how the Second World War presented a paradox for me as a child growing up in New Zealand. It felt very distant in space and time and therefore removed from my generation and day-to-day existence. However at the same time it felt very real and very close. Both my Nana and Grandad served in the conflict. My Grandad passed while I was a child but my Nana remained as a tangible link to that past. Only one generation stood between her and me and then I was there: no longer a spectator of history, instead I was touching the past. This changed in May as my Nana passed on and with her my tangible link to that generation, that period of history and that chapter in her and my life. The 70th anniversary of D Day brought home just what a loss it is to lose her, both personally as my Nana but also as one of that generation of veterans.
Growing up surrounded with history (literally we had books dating from the Sumerians to the Second World War in our house) there are names, places and events that were etched onto my consciousness from an early age. D Day was one of those: the beaches, the striped wings of the Allied planes and the beginnings of reclaiming Europe from Nazi Germany. It is an event in history that is so powerful that it only needs to be told truthfully and unadulterated to have an impact.
The Battle of Britain is another such event in history. There is a passage in Guy Gibson’s Enemy Coast Ahead, where he speaking of the Battle of Britain, which is so poignant that I had to stop once I had read it, just to let the full force of what he said register.
“It was a great story, of which we should all be proud. Many speeches have been made about the boys concerned, many classic utterances published, such as Winston Churchill’s ‘Never in the field of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few’. Songs were written and danced to in London night clubs to celebrate the victory, but let us pray, here and now, that those men will be remembered for ever; and especially in ten or twenty years’ time.”
Gibson wrote this whilst the War was happening, he died in 1944 and so did not live to see Allied victory. While there may have been a feeling that the tide in the war had turned and that victory would ensue, he never knew this as fact or experience it for himself. Those words are very much of their time, charged with the electricity of that moment and unaffected by the comfort of hindsight. He wasn’t to know that events of the War were going to be remembered not only 20 years later, but that 50, 70 years later they would still be commemorated.
The Kohima Epitaph is a testament not only the Battle of Kohima and lives lost but also to the power of words. The effect of the Epitaph is greater than its two lines, its 17 words. It is powerful because it is not the living that speak, but the dead:
When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today
It is the dead asking nothing more than to be spoken of, remembered, by those who survived and made it back home. My Grandad, my Nana were two of those who made it back home. Gibson and thousands of others did not make it back. There is power in faithful remembrance. There is power in remembering history and freedom in learning from it.
Each Remembrance Sunday the Kohima Homage is spoken. As a veteran it was spoken at my Nana’s service. It has come to embody all conflicts beyond that of Kohima:
They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
we will remember them.
It serves as a response to the Epitaph. This time it is the living that are speaking. It is the generation who have grown old and the generations who have followed that remember those who did not return.
My Nana was a bit of a survivor. In many ways she was a paradigm of strength and charity. When she was a child during the Great Depression her father would invite home for lunch veterans of the Great War. Sometimes they would be missing limbs or have other battle scars, but at their house they would divvy up the food once again so that they too could have a hot meal.
At 14 years old she was made to leave school (which she had won a scholarship for and did very well at) and work in a factory. Though this was not what she would have chosen, she decided that if she were to work as a seamstress then she would be the best she could be. In the end, her best was exceptional. She was a beautiful example that people can not only survive the circumstances of their life but exceed them.
She lived in London during the Blitz. I’ve written of my fascination with the Battle of Britain. I now live in London and every once and a while on a clear day I will look up and try to imagine the sky filled with aircraft: the Hurricanes, Spitfires, Messerschmitts and Heinkels. In the end I can’t get even close. The fighters of the BBMF fill the sky for me and their numbers are infinitely tiny compared to the numbers of that battle. The din of a bomber’s engines is unmistakeably omnipresent in my ears but there is only one in the BBMF, and those nights saw many more with additional threat of bombs in their bellies. She was too young to enlist at the time, but she joined the WAAF the following year.
As a WAAF she assisted consultants for those men who were being treated with plastic surgery for burns suffered while crashing in a burning aircraft. She took notes on the progress of the patients while they were photographed. She served on Bomber stations. Attended the services for men who took off but didn’t return the same. By the time the war drew to a close in 1945 she had seen much more than her 22 years would otherwise suggest nowadays. Her generation grew up quick.
63 years later I watched her for the first time attending the Armistice Sunday service: standing proudly, smartly dressed in a blazer and slacks (she was always smartly dressed – this was one lesson that was passed down from her, to my mother and eventually to me) with her RAF badge pinned to her beret. She was proud of what her generation had achieved and why not? Look at what they stopped. Look at the price they paid. Look at the lessons they learned. Lessons we ought to pay heed to.
So with her passing, with the steady passing of her generation and with the years between now and then increasing, what else can I do but echo Gibson? Let us hope that there is always enough who choose to look back at history and heed the lessons that were learnt. In the final passing of yesterday’s light into the shadows of dusk, that in 20, 50, 70, 100 years’ time from now it is all remembered and remembered faithfully. Then maybe the night won’t be so long, nor the dawn so cold.