I grew up in a landscape of pillboxes. In Berkshire in the 1970s and 1980s concrete and brick machine gun emplacements and bunkers were part of the scenery; lurking in hedges, standing in the middle of fields, at the edge of canals, they were part of the backdrop of my childhood. Not spectacular, not particularly impressive but most definitely there. Their presence was typical of the wider place of World War II. I was aware that a lot my relatives had served in it- indeed I assumed that all grandparents and other elderly must have served. My great grandparents lost their house in the Blitz and my grandmother watched German bombs falling on the factory where my grandfather was working his shift (he survived), my great uncle Tony landed at Juno with the Canadians. Pictures of men in uniform were in family photo albums and on mantel pieces. It was there on television on Saturday afternoons in the black and white war films I was weaned on – The Cruel Sea and The Longest Day.
In more recent years I’ve spent a lot of time in western Normandy – again, traces of the war are everywhere; bunkers and gun emplacements near the coast. But there, more than anything are memorials. There are war cemeteries – American, British and German – but also memorials in towns and villages, plaques, signs, ad hoc memorials to particular incidents – a crashed plane or a fierce firefight. There are also memorials to civilians killed in artillery bombardments, inscriptions recording where resistance fighters were killed and in many churchyards the distinctive limestone grave stones of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission It is also there in the multiplicity of D-Day museums – some modern and sophisticated like Memorial in Caen, but others often cobbled together from collections of military refuse left behind on the battlefield, more junkshop than museum. I also often saw visiting veterans and can remember my wife and I talking to one of the men who had piloted in the landing craft who we met at one of the landing beaches.
Ove the last couple of years we’ve been bludgeoned by commemoration and memorialisation of World War I. It was moving, upsetting at times, but all pervading. Whilst I can emotionally engage with WWI – I lost a lot of family on the western front and like everyone my generation I was force-fed war poetry – I’ve always found it more distant and less immediate than World War II, which for me was always my ‘default’ war. Like a lot of people I have also felt increasingly uncomfortable about the saturation of memory about 1914-18, including the increased social peer pressure to conform to certain norms and its insidious creeping adoption of it by the establishment. Not that I don’t think that one of the roles of government is to act as a kind of official mourner, but it felt increasingly politicised. Whilst the horror and destruction was unequivocal, the wider strategic reasons for the Great War were morally ambiguous to say the least.
I’ve thus found it interesting to find that I’ve felt quite emotional about the D-Day commemorations – partly because I’ve experienced the remains of the D-Day and wider WWII Landscapes in both England and Normandy. There are also obvious political resonances which can’t be ducked – the rise of the Far Right, the splintering of international cooperative organisations are the most obvious ones. One of the important results of the War was also the development of the Welfare State and the post-war social contract – again, both increasingly under attack. The war (or its memory) has also been increasingly used as a crude ideological bludgeon at the less sophisticated John Bullshittery end of the Brexit debate (“two world wars and one world cup..” – “we survived alone in the War we’ll do it again”). Sometimes it seems that the UKs greatest natural resource is limitless supplies of nostalgia.
But despite this politicisation of the War (from both ends of the political spectrum) I’m loathe to dismiss the importance of these kinds of acts of national commemoration. There is obviously a thin line to tread between commemoration of war and glorification of war- but I think that on the whole people are conscious of this and do their best (although I must admit the jitterbugging dancers at yesterday’s event made me a little queasy). It’s also clear that these formal events are important for many (not all) of the veterans themselves – they provide some kind of public acknowledgement of the magnitude and consequences of the events.
As I hit my late 40s and given the quiet presence of the war in the background when growing up, I think I’m also finding the current commemorations so poignant as they have this autobiographical link. My grandparents and relatives who served have now died as have most of those who were there. The often ad hoc memorials and rough and ready museums are becoming slicker and the quotidian aspects of the surviving war are becoming more explicitly identified as heritage. When I was a teenager you could easily buy WWII army surplus. 1940s books and other period odds and sods for buttons in junk shops; now they are only available as ‘memorabilia’ from specialist outlets. The current international anniversary is chiming with a personal sense of a familial tumbling over of the generations and receding of parts of my childhood, in terms of people places and things.