I was born closer to the First World War than my children were to the Second, though of course it was the Second that people talked about most. My parents' characters were forged by the Second World War - by rationing and evacuation and air raids and watching the planes fly over.
|Imperial War Museum|
But my mother was born eight years after the end of the First World War and that also shaped her childhood. It also produced that generation of women teachers who had never married, or had been early widowed. The First World War was in my classroom. I knew nothing about my father's family in the First World War - it was never mentioned. My mother's father, an ARP warden in the Second World War, was in the merchant navy in the First and so had an easier time than most. He had three brothers, and I think one was in the 'proper' navy, and one was too young to serve. No one died.
It's easy to think that everyone who went to war was slaughtered, but in fact 90% came back. Fairly obviously, most of us are not descended from those who died, or even who were horribly wounded or traumatised. Those young men were not the ones to marry and have families. They were people like the old man who ran the shop at the end of the lane where I grew up: partly blind, scarily angrily for no apparent reason (not apparent if you're six and just wanted to buy sweets), living alone with a dog and a limp. We remember those who died, but we should also remember those who survived, as it wasn't always the better alternative. And, of course, the families who survived, their lives rent apart by loss or by the return of destroyed young men. We should remember them.
|'Lyricmac', 1982 - creative commons licence|
The Wall existed from soon after I was born until the time I was pregnant with my own first child. As my father made frequent trips to Germany on business, the East/West split was something I was aware of in a shadowy way. When I began to travel in Eastern Europe as a teenager, it was unpopular - seen as fraternising with the enemy. But it was more a keen desire to understand what this 'other' was like that was presented as the enemy.
I was in Budapest when the Wall fell. I went to the railway station to get a ticket to Berlin. It was packed. I realised it wasn't my fight. The people around me wanted to go to Berlin to reach the West. I couldn't take their seat, so went back to the hotel and watched it on TV instead. I would have loved to have been there, but in the end it was better not to be.
My granny didn't kill anyone and was killed by a heart attack, so although I will remember her fondly, she doesn't need much of a paragraph here. Just a loving hello across the lost years.
Mostly, today is about the First World War. The poppies at the Tower of London are an impressive and moving memorial. There will be 888,246 poppies - one for every British soldier who died. Not that there is a definite number of known casualties, but hey, you can't make an approximate number of ceramic poppies. Perhaps there could have been some way to show, though, that we don't even know how many people died. (The figure of 888,246 is the number reported by the War Graves Commission in 2010-2011 and includes names from war memorials and all named burials.) Non-British soldiers who fought for the Empire are not remembered at the Tower, even though The Mirror erroneously stated that the poppies commemorate the '888,246 British and Commonwealth servicemen' killed. The German memorial exhibition in the Deutsches Historisches Museum simply says that 15 million died, without singling out German soldiers for special note (and around twice as many German troops died as British).
|It all looks more real in colour - French troops|
|Edna Gertrude Urwin|
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