In my teenage years one Christmas day I answered the door to find my Great Uncle Ken standing there. He was wearing a blue beret. I ridiculed his headgear and he purported to be shocked.
“Monty gave me this beret”
When I reported this to my dad as an example of the crazy things that Grandad’s brother said, my father gently reminded me:
“He fought in the second world war. Monty probably did give him that beret.”
Their oldest brother was Great Uncle Sim. I remember him too, though he was quite old and had Parkinson’s which was disconcerting as a young boy. He received Maundy Money from the Queen. He was in the Sherwood Foresters in the First World War. He lied about his age. One gets the impression they weren’t checking too closely in that conflict.
My grandmother (married to the grandfather mentioned above) was a bookkeeper in Hereford in 1940 when a senior officer for the home guard marched into her department store and drafted her for war work. She was locked in a tiny office in Hereford Station trying to keep track of the soldiers being evacuated from Dunkirk. They were being put on trains and moved north as quickly as possible. Across the UK people like my grandmother were trying desperately to keep track of them.
My paternal grandfather made munitions. My maternal grandfather worked in the huge ICI plant in Teeside and was in a reserved occupation (during my childhood I understood he was a painter, I now understand he did something more technical). He was also a Special Constable. My maternal grandmother was a nurse. In later life she married her childhood sweetheart. He had served on the HMS Cornwall which was sunk in 1942 in the Pacific. He and his crew mates waited over 30 hours in shark infested waters to be rescued. Over 400 men died. Not long before his death he was welcomed on the newly commissioned Cornwall where the Captain addressed him as “Sir” which he clearly found extremely moving.
These people are not history to me. They are ordinary. They are my family. I knew them well. My grandmothers only died within the past few years. The second world war was a long time ago but the fact that my grandmother could talk to me about it makes it seem more recent and immediate.
My parent’s generation, my generation and the generation that followed mine have lived under an unprecedented period of peace in Europe. That is clearly an amazing, wonderful thing.
But we should never, ever, take that peace for granted. To the generation that lived through it, war was real and immediate. To those of us that knew them well it seemed like a real possibility. As our collective memory fades the risk is that we start to believe that peace is normal and natural. But peace requires effort, and vigilance and we should be profoundly grateful for the peace we continue to enjoy.