Let's mention the war

Posted on: 07 September 2010 by Mark O'haire

The number of young people who know nothing about World War II is shocking. Thankfully there are new projects set to keep alive the memories of veterans and ordinary people who lived through the conflict.

Growing up in the 50s, 60s and 70s, we don't actually remember the war. We just feel as though we do. 

Whether it was films like The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare or The Battle Of Britain, popular TV shows like Combat, Rat Patrol and Dad's Army or toys like Action Man, Airfix model kits and Johnny Seven toy machine guns, the war still seemed to dominate our lives.

Yet these days it's a different story. A poll of 18 to 25 year olds in England and Wales recently found that more than a quarter had never heard of the second world war, almost half did not know who it was fought against and a significant proportion were unaware of the Blitz, the Battle Of Britain or the fact that the Allies won. 

What can you expect, though, when the Prime Minister himself refers to Britain being the junior partner to the US back in 1940?

Harry Patch, the last British vetran of World War I, died last year aged 111. The generation who lived through the Second world war will soon be gone too.

To quote the Spanish American philosopher George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." We owe it to the millions who suffered and died in the war and its aftermath never to forget.

Thanks to the spread of cheap audio and video recording and editing equipment, we can at least preserve some of the memories, anecdotes and stories of the wartime generation. Projects like the Oral History Society promote the collection, preservation and use of recorded memories of the past. Mass Observation has documented everyday life in Britain since the late 1930s: their archive has resulted in wartime memoirs such as Simon Garfield's Our Hidden Lives and We Are At War and David Kynaston's Austerity Britain, 1945-51.

Leger Holidays, who run tours to European battlefields, have set up the Test the Nation World War Survey, designed in collaboration with historian and Leger Battlefield expert Paul Reed, in an attempt to get a true picture of the nation’s historical knowledge.

This survey will be online until late September and the findings will be revealed in November in time for Armistice Day, 11th November. As part of the campaign Leger Holidays will also be visiting schools throughout the UK with local veteran groups to give kids the chance to hear first hand memories and see memorabilia about this important period of history. Children will also be encouraged to speak to their own family about the First and Second World War and upload a memory at www.keepthememoriesalive.co.uk

A Leger spokesman said: "This is a great opportunity for families to get together and discuss their own history. Leger is urging the UK to speak to older generations about their family’s involvement in the Second World War, ensuring that their stories are passed down to future generations before it is too late. Anyone can upload a story, memory, anecdote, picture, letter or any other personal memorabilia that they would like recorded."

Meanwhile Reg Bowyer from Oswestry, Shropshire, who turned 90 last month, was presented with the first edition of his autobiography, A Long Shadow, published as a prize for winning the Book of My Life competition, sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance, which ran earlier this year.

The book tells Mr Bowyer’s story of his upbringing on a farm in shropshire during the inter-war years of the 1920s and 30s. On the eve of the Second World War he volunteered for the army and saw active service in North Africa and Italy. After the war, he became mayor of Oswestry.

Chair of the competition judges, Ecclesiastical’s fine art and heritage underwriter Clare Pardy said:"In an age when we see so many insubstantial celebrity biographies being published, it’s refreshing to read about an ordinary man who lived through extraordinary times was called upon to show real valour."

Further Reading

Does the spirit of the blitz live on?

It is the 70th anniversary of the blitz. How has the national spirit changed since then?

September marks the 70th anniversary of the onset of the blitz - a German bombing campaign that continued until May 1941.

During WWII the German airforce bombed industrial and civilian centres in England and thousands died after weeks of consecutive raids.

Do you or your family members have memories of the blitz? Will you be marking the anniversary? How has the national spirit changed since the blitz? Join in the debate here.

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