Springingtiger's Blog

Those Days Are Gone…(The Lessons of History)

WRNS, RNVR, & me

Today a friend on Facebook posted a tribute to her newly deceased uncle. In it she referenced his time as a ‘Bevin Boy’ called up to serve during the Second World War not in the Armed Forces, but as a coal miner. We sometimes forget that the whole armed struggle would have been in vain had not the infrastructure existed to support it. The post reminded me of a recently shared picture fron a veterans parade showing a weeping man, alone, carrying a wreath, marching as the last member of his battle group. It occurs to me that very soon there will be none of that generation who endured the Second World War left to remember it. It is not something that should be forgot.

Our politicians and captains of industry are of a generation whose eldest were but children in the war. For many the dark years of World War Two are nothing more than a source of cheap insults to score political points. It is sad to see the sacrifices of so many millions cheapened by a generation so fixed on their own gain that they treat the deaths of millions whether in mid Twentieth Century Europe or Twenty-First Century Syria with utter disregard. I was appalled when Ken Livingstone referenced Hitler’s support for a policy of forced settlement of Jews in Palestine is a cheap criticism of a particular political lobby. I was even more appalled when Michael Foster attacked those who supported Jeremy Corbyn as Nazi Stormtroopers. I was angry not just because of the dishonesty, but because it cheapened the sacrifices of a generation.

I don’t know much about my father’s war except that he spent most of it on a minesweeper keeping open the Mediterranean sea lanes and that he didn’t like Stukas. My mother was in the WRNS when she met him, she drove a lorry. I remember her telling me of how she drove the young men down to their ships and how when the ships returned to port she drove the bodies of those same young men back for burial because sea burials might have provided washed up bodies for Nazi propaganda. My uncle retreated across North Africa before Rommel and then fought his way through Europe from France to Germany. He told stories about his war, but only ever the funny anecdotes, he didn’t like dive bombers either. Every time a politician uses the war to score a debating point he pours contempt on the deaths and the scars seen and unseen of those who were there, that is why it is important that we keep their memories alive. The truth should not be buried along with the dead.

The Chilcott Enquiry stressed the importance of learning the lessons of the Iraq War. The truth is we are very bad at learning the lessons of any war, that’s why we keep fighting them. We dwell on the victories and acts of heroism and conveniently hide the truth of the profiteers who made money from the war, the treachery and cowardice that are also part of any conflict. As long as we glorify war we will breed new generations eager to fight them, of course we also continue to provide a good income for those who make and sell the weapons. Just as fortunes were established by slave owners and still enjoyed by their descendants today, so were the profits of war enjoyed by an elite whose children continue to occupy the upper echelons of society.

There have been commemorations of the battles of the Great War, but much less about the domestic history of that war. We remember Churchill sending tanks into France, but tend to ignore him sending them to crush demonstrations against intolerable labour practices in Glasgow. We are inclined to forget Mary Barbour and the brave women of the rent strikes exploited by profiteer landlords while their husbands were fighting and dying in Flanders. Ironically during all the commemorations of the Great War and the ignoring of the Rent Strike Conservative MPs, many of whom are landlords themselves refused to pass legislation compelling landlords to make the properties they let fit for human habitation. Finally as I think about the Clydesiders and the labour struggles of the earlier Twentieth Century my attention was drawn to a remark in yet another article about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party that quite rightly pointed out the valuable part played by the Jewish community in building the Party one of the writer’s examples was Manny Shinwell. I remembered a conversation I once had with Fenner Brockway about the need to capture the memories of the early campaigners while they were still with us. Of Manny Shinwell he said, “Manny was one of us, but he turned!” Not an anti-semitic comment merely an expression of Brockway’s lifelong refusal to compromise his socialist principles. Not long after that conversation I shared a taxi with Phillip Noel Baker and he talked non stop about Eleanor Roosevelt, I wished I could have recorded him. We allow too many of our past generations to go without leaving a record of their life, times and personal memories and opinions, we need to remember and learn from the lessons of our history.


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