With all the attention on the centenary of the First World War last year, and the forthcoming General Election taking up the headlines, it has been easy to overlook the fact that next month will mark the 70th anniversary of VE Day as the Second World War came to an end.
It’s not been easy to overlook in my family, though. On my mantelpiece is a photograph of my mother-in-law and her brother, Arthur, in military uniform. Beside it is a candle which we are lighting every night.
Marjorie died two weeks ago at the age of almost 94. This quiet, dignified lady, who left her rural home in Bedfordshire to join the ATS, slipped quietly away on a Sunday afternoon.
Her passing reminded me that survivors of this generation are dwindling by the week. Last year we lost a dear family friend, Cliff, who had fought like a lion from Africa to Italy as part of the Eighth Army. And now Marjorie has gone, taking with her everything she signed the Official Secrets Act to keep. All she ever told us was that she worked on the construction of airfields. I know she was sent around the country, from Redcar to the West Country, to Surrey, often at a day’s notice. In the 20-odd years I knew her, she never breathed a word of what she actually did.
Her rectitude and her quiet modesty impressed me greatly. What impressed me even more was that her generation dealt with sacrifice in a way that we can’t even imagine. On that photograph on our mantelpiece, her brother looks so young. Yet a few months after it was taken, he was dead, lost forever to his family in a battle near Caen in northern France. We took the children to visit his grave in a military cemetery a few years ago. There was something fitting about the cornfields which surrounded it, a suitable resting place for a boy who in a different time would have been bringing in the harvest on a farm, as generations before him had done.
My two children, Jack and Lizzie, never got chance to talk to their Uncle Arthur, so they could never ask him what it felt like to be sent across the Channel in an overcrowded boat, terrified that he would never see his home again. They did however, talk to their grandma about her experience of war.
It was extremely difficult to get her to open up though. Like many from this era, she was reluctant to show off about the part she had played. And until her dying day, although she never said as much, she was wary of revealing more than was strictly necessary. What does remain, in the children’s hearts, is the sense that their grandmother was part of something so much bigger than herself. She was called upon to give up her secure life in a little cottage and move far away from home to join a conflict that was not of her making.
This has had a tremendous effect on her grandchildren. It comes out in ways you might not expect. When I returned home from shopping the other day, Jack was laid on the sofa watching a film. He had chosen Saving Private Ryan, he said, because he wanted to feel closer to his grandma. I was touched, but it made me think. What else can our modern, 21st century children learn from this generation? It’s not just about courageous actions under enemy fire. It’s about not putting yourself first, and doing your bit for your country. It’s about learning to deal with loss and accept it without self-pity.
It’s also about the things which you don’t see in films or explored in documentaries. What about the ethos of make-do-and-mend, conserving resources at home when times are tight? That’s something I talk about with my daughter a lot when she is engaged in learning to knit and sew. What about learning how to live for the moment, and in the moment, through music and dancing? What about the sense of ceremony and spectacle which has helped us to shape our identity as a nation when we remember the millions who fell for our freedom?
In a week, we will attend Marjorie’s funeral and lay this special old lady to rest. It will be a quiet affair in comparison to grand national remembrance events. As we say the prayers and sing the hymns – which include I Vow to Thee My Country – we will do the right thing for her. In our hearts though, we will say a silent prayer and consider ourselves blessed that we knew her.
Through her, we had a link to a past which is gradually flickering and fading, like that candle on the mantelpiece.
One day, in the not too distant future, that light will finally go out. In our children though, I hope it will live forever.