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.
A thought-provoking and moving post, Hayley. Thank you. It underscores the point I heard made by Max Hastings on Radio 4, this afternoon, that VE day seems to have been celebrated least by those who suffered most, and vice versa.ReplyDelete
Indeed, my father (North Sea convoy gunner and then a submarine officer) never took part in any VE day "celebrations". Too much loss, too many dark memories I suspect though he was certainly open to talking about many of his experiences.Delete
I think both my Grandfathers would have talked about it if asked, but I don't know that they put any particular value on what for their generation was a universal experience rather than a definitive one, and that in both cases must have raised mixed memories. My German grandmother was unwilling to talk about her past at all which is understandable, and my other grandmother died when my father was 16 so I don't really know anything much about her. What your father did must have demanded considerable fortitude, the very thought of a submarine makes me feel claustrophobic.Delete
It must have been a huge relief, and a moment of hope that loved ones would be returning soon, bombing would end, not having to worry about black out anymore - I mean, seeing the lights come back on at night must have been something as well... But obviously not an uncomplicated moment of joy for everybody. The last time I saw great uncle Dick's wife, Jean, she told us about her first marriage - to an airman who was shot down and killed the day after the wedding. It was more than 50 years and a happy marriage later but the sadness hadn't gone away.ReplyDelete
Yes I agree with your thoughts in this post. I like the measured tone of the diary entries. Very poignant.ReplyDelete
He only included extracts, and by the time he wrote his memoires he was already losing his memory. I miss him, and really wish I'd had the chance to talk to him more, not even about the big questions his book raises (some quite juicy family scandal) but just more of the details. They eventually moved to Ireland, my grandmother came from an Anglo-Irish background, and that would be fascinating. What is clear from what he included though was that he saw those war years in terms of loss and waste. It makes quite sad reading.Delete
How fascinating to have your grandfather's diaries! My grandparents were too old for WWII, though one of mine worked in an auto factory that must have made some wartime machinery. My uncles and my dad were too young. My father is the youngest in his family and was too young for the Korean War and too old for Vietnam. But even though my mother was only 5 when the war ended, she doesn't share the current fascination for the war. Even though she grew up in the US, the coverage and the Nuremburg trials afterward gave her nightmares for years.ReplyDelete
It's only fragments of diary, but it's really interesting to be able to read. Dad is getting very fed up with my trying to get him to write his memoires, but I wish he'd commit at least some of his stories to paper. He went to America in his early 20's and found a job in Wisconsin, then got called up for Vietnam. He and his friend decided it wasn't for them so they bought a car, drove to San Francisco, and managed to get on one of the last possible boats to New Zealand (I'm vague on the details about the boat situation). He says his life has been ordinary, but it's full of stories like this.Delete
The current fascination with the war bothers me now that it's no longer really tethered to lived experience and so many of the things that people would like to forget have been forgotten, so that it's mostly the their finest hour stuff that remains.
Your poor mother, what a thing to have to grow up listening too.