FORGOTTEN HEROES OF THE HOME FRONT; They Didn't Go to War but in Their Own Way, Those Who Stayed Behind Were Just as Courageous as the Men in the Battlefield

By Hastings, Max | Daily Mail (London), November 9, 2002 | Go to article overview

FORGOTTEN HEROES OF THE HOME FRONT; They Didn't Go to War but in Their Own Way, Those Who Stayed Behind Were Just as Courageous as the Men in the Battlefield


Hastings, Max, Daily Mail (London)


Byline: MAX HASTINGS

THERE was a time, perhaps 20 years ago, when Armistice Day seemed to go out of fashion. Poppies were little-worn. The 20th century's wars suddenly appeared remote to a new generation. Yet today, it is extraordinary to see the change of mood. Few thoughtful people are seen without a poppy for a week or even a fortnight before the day.

There is a sensitive public awareness of the human cost of the two world wars, as well as that of lesser conflicts, which few would have dared to anticipate, two years into the 21st century.

By far the most common image of sacrifice stems from the First World War: the memory of millions of young men rising from the trenches, to be slaughtered by machineguns before they even reached the German wire. If people turn to the later 1939-45 conflict, they think almost always in terms of death on the battlefield.

There were the fighter and bomber pilots who fell out of the skies aged 18, 19, 20. There were the sailors who froze to death or drowned in icy seas with the convoys. There were the soldiers killed in almost six years of dogged fighting, to undo Hitler's mastery of Europe and Japanese aggression in Asia.

One of the most enduring, pathetic images in my own mind is that of a pilot awarded a posthumous VC. His navigator told me that they were teasing him in the pub on the night before their last raid, because he confessed that he had reached the age of 19, never having kissed a girl in his life. What does any decoration avail such a boy, after such a passing?

Yet the longer I study wars, the more I believe that it is wrong to perceive the experience, and the sacrifice, solely in terms of death in battle. The 1914-18 campaign in France and Flanders was terrible - and so were many servicemen's sufferings in World War II.

But young fighting men, especially in the second conflict, found compensations for what they were asked to endure. There was the comradeship of their ship or unit; a sense of purpose in the struggle; an excitement, and even glamour for some of those who flew, sailed in ships, or took part in the victorious land campaigns of later years.

Meanwhile, behind the fleets and armies, millions of other men, women and children found themselves perforce obliged to take part in war. Civilian Britain won few medals, and heard few stirring eulogies pronounced over its dead. Yet its people endured privations and traumas which were all the greater because they took place amid no trumpet fanfares.

World War II imposed years of dreariness, restriction, and emotional stress. Everybody knows about the Blitz, which from September 1940 afflicted the big cities for more than a year. But every night, long after the drone of German bombers faded away, every home in the country had to tend its blackout, on pain of harassment from the local warden.

We take the comfort of our bright lights for granted. We forget the gloom of having to live and travel for years in stygian blackness, which caused the deaths in wartime accidents of more people than the Luftwaffe's bombs did.

In the garage of almost every home lucky enough to possess a car, the old Morris or Austin stood on blocks, stripped of its wheels, for lack of petrol to motor for pleasure. Trains were jammed with passengers, and hours late.

Buses, bikes, and one's own feet offered the only means of transport for everyone without official duties, from the first siren of the war to the last.

WAR displaced tens of millions of people. There were land girls and prisoners on the farms, evacuees billeted in villages, soldiers and airmen and stray friends and relatives in every house with spare space. Separation from loved ones was the norm, not the exception. Privacy became a luxury, even in one's own home. Much of the colour and small prettinesses that we take for granted vanished. …

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