I've been feeling fairly ambivalent about VE day commemorations, partly I think because decades in retail made me cynical about events framed as sales opportunities. Partly because I'm terrible at joining in with things, and finally because I've reached the point of lockdown where emotions are precarious and it doesn't take much to unbalance me. Speaking to my mother this morning I know she's in the same state - she wanted to make scones for this afternoon but was afraid that if they didn't rise properly she'd end up in tears.
Both my grandfathers were in the army during the second World War, my mothers father (Tom) was overseas for VE day (his accounts of his war varied considerably, but he ended up in Germany where he met my grandmother, at this point his war was not over). My other grandfather (Peter) had back problems so his war was spent in Britain, as an assistant camp commandant at Woolwich Arsenal. In the 1995 he wrote his memoires (they're mostly about hunting and horses) which include extracts from his wartime diaries. My Grandmother spent the war near Oakham with 5 young children, including my father and his twin brother who were born in 1943.
Neither men spoke much about their war time experiences, though from the little Grandad Tom said about it nobody looked good or sounded heroic. The big achievements in his life came later. He did very well out of the post war building boom, and was involved in motor racing, it's these things that defined him for us. He wasn't a particularly nice, or good, man (he had plenty of charisma though and his drive to achieve success was phenomenal). I can't say how much he was shaped by what he went through in the War, but I suppose it must have left its mark.
On the whole Peter seems to have had a comparatively easy war - his diaries are still full of hunting, race meetings, and horse shows in which he participated. I don't remember him talking much about it either, so I re read the relevant chapters of his memoir this morning and it seems worth quoting what he's included for the week running up to VE day.
30th April. Hitler reported dead.
2nd May. Berlin reported captured by the Russians. All good news.
3rd May 45. Hamburg falls and is declared open city. Pen and Nanny and children move to Chacombe. I have to get digs locally until my release from the Army. Manage to get down for week-ends. War news good. Germans surrendered unconditionally to Field Marshal Montgomery on all fronts.
7th May. Go down to Newmarket and meet Dick (his brother who was overseas) in local camp. Very uncomfortable in Nissan huts, but he seems well. We go to 1000 Guineas; good meeting, make a bit on day. Take Dick out to dinner in Newmarket, very crowded.
8th May. Winston Churchill announces officially that Peace has been declared and that the cease fire has been sounded.
Well, the War ended after so much suffering, loss of life and property. Now we have to start again; most difficult for some. Great celebrations in London and elsewhere, but I prefer to keep quiet and ponder on all that has been going on, and to feel sorry for those who have lost everything. We have been lucky. My next door neighbour came in and had a drink. He had lost a son, which he felt very much.
On the 20th of October he knows his discharge papers are imminent, he complains about the stinginess of the £105 he's paid for services rendered over the previous 5 years, which he describes as 5 lost years.
I'd forgotten the details of this section, and was surprised by how low key he was - I had expected something else, but his attitude makes sense. Stuck somewhere between knowing he should be grateful for relative luck, and sorrow over lost friends, hopes, and plans. It's just how I feel 75 years later.