Today is 6th June 2014, the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy. 2014 also marks 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War.
Today is also 2 months, to the day, before my 37th birthday. Weirdly that fact seems to have had rather less media coverage, but it means that I’m part of a generation who are the children of the baby boomers, and the grandkids of people who fought in World War 2, many of whom had memories of the 1914-18 war. My grandmother remembered sheltering, with her mother, behind gravestones during the bombardment of Scarborough from the sea in December, 1914. I believe my grandfather was in the RAF and flew over Italy during World War 2. At my other grandparents’ home a picture of my grandfather in service uniform sat above the television throughout his life. I don’t recall any of them talking in detail about their wartime experiences, in common with many of their generation, and, in common with many of mine, I don’t recall ever asking, but they were a tangible link to a point in the past that wasn’t yet history.
That link is fading. The generation who fought in both wars has gone, and those who were children in the first, and young men and women in the second, are fewer and fewer in number at every service of remembrance. And that is the way of things. Time passes. New generations are born and grow, and each is one step further removed from the experience of any specific point in the past. Instinctively, I feel that we ought to be doing everything we can to ensure that the feeling a first hand connection with the twentieth century’s wars is maintain, but, at the same time, part of me knows that to be impossible.
Experience fades to memory which, in turn, fades to history. I feel, in my gut, that World War 2 must be remembered. It has an emotional immediacy for me that the Napoleonic Wars or the English Civil War don’t possess. They are simply history. Things that happened in the 1940s feel real, but inevitably, for the generations still to come those stories will fade and lose their sting, in just the same way as earlier conflicts have for the rest of us.
We can’t hold onto the past. We can’t force it to feel real beyond its own moment in time, and as memory shifts to history there is a danger that we forget not only the experience, but also the lessons that generations before us learnt through the sacrifice of their youth. So today we remember those who lived through horror to try to make their own, and our, futures safer and brighter, and offer our respects to those who never made it back.
When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrows we gave our today.