Hart of the Matter
Every year, as poppies got on sale, I wonder whether this Remembrance thing will go on for ever, or whether succeeding generations will begin to tire of it and lose interest.
Young people nowadays are taught about the two World Wars as part of their history education – or whatever that subject is called nowadays – and many of them go on school trip to the battlefields in Flanders or northern France, or the concentration camps.
But I am still sometimes sceptical about whether they can really take it in, any more than I was able to empathise with the story of Waterloo or Bannockburn.
The facts are available for them to learn, and they can see films and reconstructions, but the context is definitely diminishing because they were not born into that world of deference, respect, empire and self-sacrifice.
They can see that millions of people their age went out to die in the mud, sand or sea somewhere for something which they did not fully understand - even in World War Two which, with hindsight, was more clear-cut than most – but they must find it much harder to understand why they did it.
In Haverhill this weekend there is a particularly special Festival of Remembrance going on today and tomorrow (Friday and Saturday), to mark the 90th anniversary of the town’s war memorial. Part of it has been a detailed investigation of the people whose names appear on the memorial from World War One, and the results of that have been made into book of remembrance.
At the same time, a new book is being published of letters sent home from the front by people from Haverhill to their relatives and friends.
These two records can bring you a little closer to the real experience of the World Wars, because these were people who knew this town and its landscape, and no doubt had it in their minds at times of extreme danger. Many would not have been much older than our current crop of sixth formers.
For young people searching for reasons why they were prepared to make this sacrifice – other than because of conscription – the puzzle must remain that history takes the view that the brave new world they fought for turned out to be no better than the world they left.
This cynical view was much in evidence between the wars and was one reason why many of the older generation were unwilling to go into another war in 1939.
But more recently we have had to suffer a similar denigration of the post-war world of the late 1940s and 1950s. Because much of modern thought seems to have been fashioned by that section of society which rebelled in the 1960s, what came before it has suffered a bad press.
It’s a bit like the slanted view of late medieval events we learned from Shakespeare’s plays, because they came from a period when the new-ish Tudor dynasty was rewriting history to blacken what came before.
When you think about it, the achievement of the wartime and early post-war generation was quite extraordinary. Despite the appalling suffering and loss it had incurred in saving the world from Fascism, and the huge national deficit it had run up to do so – far greater in real terms than what we face now – it still managed to set up the welfare state and the national health service.
The period of austerity which naturally followed the war blossomed into a most successful time – one might almost say halcyon days – when prime minster Harold McMillan was moved to tell the nation: “You’ve never had it so good.” Not only was he right, but he might, with equal accuracy, have added: “And you never will again”.
Far from this being the period of dreary, grey imprisonment which the young rebels of the time painted in books and films, these were, in fact, settled years when Britain drew on the advantages of having been cut off for some years from much of the globe and forced to look in on itself and renew its values.
Of course, it was a pressure cooker which could not be kept closed for ever, and eventually the wider world broke in and the old forces of greed took over. Instead of being satisfied with what they had, people looked for greater comfort and more affluence, which seemed to flow towards them in a continuous stream.
They no longer wanted to dirty their hands with manufacture and were happy to see it removed to other parts of the world, living instead on the less solid foundations of new technologies and financial institutions, for which we are now paying heavily.
All the responsibility and stability which the wartime and early post-war generation salvaged from the storms which it lived through, has slowly been frittered away.
So I believe Remembrance is not just about those who made the supreme sacrifice, but about those who rebuilt the world again so successfully in such adverse conditions. I am rather afraid we shall not see their like again.