Disappearing memories of war that are fighting to be heard

Not all of Cyril Haworth's Second World War memories are suitable for children. But his five grandchildren never tire of being told the story of his escape from the Germans.

"I sneaked on to my jeep radio when I went to the toilet, and told the British where I was being held," says the 87-year-old from York, who was one of 25,000 troops who landed on the French coast's Gold Beach on D-Day. A regimental survey officer with the field artillery, he made it through Normandy but was eventually captured in Belgium.

Although he managed to escape his German captors after just 18 hours, it took Haworth, who visited the Belsen concentration camp just a few days after it was liberated, a lifetime to open up about his past.

"I'd always kept completely quiet to my family about a lot of what went on," he says. "It was a dark part of my memory." However, five years ago, he was asked to talk about his wartime memories at a church service and the experience prove cathartic.

"I unburdened my heart and got a lot off my mind," he says. "At Belsen, I saw things that stick in your memory and are difficult to get rid of. Once you start talking about it, you feel better, but we depend on people asking us."

The problem is that few people do bother to ask. New research shows 22 per cent of under-16s don't even know if their family members were involved in the Second World War and with the numbers taking history GCSE falling – less than one in three sat the exam last year – for a significant number, knowledge about the war comes solely from films or computer games.

In recent times, Cyril has been doing his bit to enlighten younger generations on the realities of war. He has given his own relatives copies of the family history he wrote himself, which includes four chapters on both his own and his wife Margaret's experiences during the war, and he has become a regular visitor to schools in Yorkshire.

"I was absolutely staggered at how little the 10 and 11-year-olds I was speaking to knew about the Second World War," he says. "I've been asked why I slept in a trench in the mud, instead of staying in a bed and breakfast and whether bows and arrows were used on the beach.

"It's terribly difficult to justify to a child why you would go out and kill somebody, so justification is the first thing. Once you've done that, you try to lighten your experiences. I think it's important for them to know, but only to know an edited amount."

As the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings approaches on June 6, Leger Holidays, which runs trips to battlefields, is encouraging youngsters to both talk to their family members about the war and then share the stories by posting them on the Keep The Memories Alive website

"For many younger people, the Second World War will seem like a long time ago and it can be hard for this generation to relate to their family's experiences," says the company's battlefield expert Paul Reed.

"Speaking to grandparents, great-grandparents and other relatives not only gives a real-life and personal insight into many aspects of what it was like to live through the war, it also teaches children about their own family history and how the Second World War directly influenced it.

"While books on the war contain the facts, there's nothing like real experiences to truly understand the war years, it's the real-life accounts, the pictures, the anecdotes and the letters that give that personal insight and really bring history to life."

Since doing his talks to schools, Cyril has also discovered that much of what has been written about the war bears little resemblance to life in the trenches.

"I've read things in some books about what happened in the same part of Normandy I was in, and wondered whether they were written about the same war," he says. "If children speak to a veteran, they're hearing about a true historical occasion, something that really happened.

"There's not many veterans left these days, so if children are going to speak to them, they need to do it soon."

To post memories, visit ww.keepthememoriesalive.co.uk