The Passing Generation
When Roland Beamont turned twenty-one, he was already a veteran of the Battle for France and the Battle of Britain, had shot down a dozen enemy aircraft, and won a Distinguished Flying Cross. A year later he was a squadron leader with over sixty pilots and groundcrew under his command; before he was twenty-four, he was in charge of entire wing of three squadrons, operating a brand-new aircraft that he personally had played a significant role in developing. When I turned twenty-one, on June 27, 1991, I was in the very middle of one of the greatest summers of my life. I was in my second year at university, had plenty of friends, was doing little studying and had an enormous amount of time in which to have fun. That summer was a precious and golden time. A summer of playing sport, of long evenings in the pub, and of countless twenty-first birthday parties. I spent a month travelling around Europe with five of my greatest mates. I had little money, but I cannot think of a time when I laughed as much or cared as little about anything. At twenty-one we were old enough to be treated like adults and to appreciate adult things, yet we had absolutely no responsibility for anyone but ourselves. Like most of my friends, I was callow, not very worldly and my outlook narrow. But so what? There was plenty of time to grow up; I wanted to enjoy life while I could.
Not everyone today is as fortunate as I was, but at least here in the western world none of us are forced to spend the best years of our life fighting and living through a global war. International terrorism may be a cause for worry, but it has directly touched few of our lives so far. For the generation of men – and women – who were born in the years that followed the end of the First World War, turning twenty-one offered little cause for celebration. All too often, this milestone was met by young people forced to grow old before their time, boys who would be facing life-threatening danger and the kind of responsibility few would be prepared to shoulder today.
These people were an extraordinary generation. The majority of those who fought were not professionals, but civilians who either volunteered or were conscripted as part of a global conflict that touched the lives of every person in every country involved. Ordinary, everyday people, just like you and me. One of the fascinations of the Second World War is wondering what we would have done were we in their shoes. Would we have willingly answered the call? Which of the services would we have joined? And would we have been able to control our fear and keep ourselves together amidst the chaos and carnage? Or would we have crumbled under the weight of terror and grief? â€˜How did you deal with seeing friends killed in front of your eyes?’ is a question I have asked veterans over and over again. â€˜You simply had to put it out of mind and keep going,’ is the usual reply. Would we have been able to do that in an age when we like to demonstrate mass expressions of grief and to turn to counselling as the panacea for any trauma? One veteran who had survived much of the war in North Africa and then the bloody slog up through Italy told me how when his house was broken into, someone offered him victim support counselling. â€˜I told her to bugger off,’ he said.
Nonetheless, most veterans believe we would behave exactly as they did. I’d like to think so, but am not so sure. It was hard growing up in the 1920s and 30s. In Britain and the Commonwealth countries, communities had been devastated by the losses on the Western Front or at Gallipoli. In the United States, the Great Depression touched the entire nation; appalling poverty was rife. Healthcare was in its infancy and the standard of living – both in the USA and Europe – was way, way lower than it is now. Of the many I have interviewed, over fifty percent had lost at least one parent by the time they were fifteen. Corporal punishment was a part of every child’s life. For the privileged, nannies and household staff ensured that parents often remained distant figures, while among the poor, a child might share a bed with his siblings and a bedroom with his mother and father. This is not to suggest that the twenty-one year-olds of the war generation loved any less than we do today, or had fewer feelings; of course they did not. But perhaps their expectations were lower. Perhaps they were used to hardship in a way that is unfamiliar to us today. For those in Britain and her Dominions, the post-Great War generation also grew up during a time when wars and conflict were a part of British life. Even after the slaughter of the First World War, there were still plenty of Empire spats: in Ireland, Afghanistan, and along the North-West Frontier. Iraq. And while during the inter-war years, the United States largely stuck to her isolationist policy, life was every bit as hard in America, if not more so, than in Britain.
Perhaps we are too soft in this age of Health and Safety, when the threat of litigation means we are more mollycoddled and protected more than ever before. Certainly we are less interesting. For all its horrors, no one can deny that the Second World War provided human drama on an enormous scale. The First World War, despite the terrifying ordeal of the trenches, did not touch as many lives as the War of 1939-45, where in Europe, certainly, the majority of civilians, as well as combatants, found themselves in the front line. Britain suffered considerable aerial bombardment, severe rationing, displacement of many thousands of men, women and children and dispatched its young men all around the world to fight for a better world. By 1945, the United Kingdom had sent off so many men to war that there were almost no reserves of manpower left. Yet compared to Germany, Italy, Russia or Eastern Europe, Britain got off lightly. So, too, did the United States, but this is not demean their huge losses. Of the front-line formations in Northwest Europe and Italy, America suffered 120% casualties between D-Day and VE Day. In the Pacific, the trauma for US troops was even worse, where they suffered unimaginable horror as they battered their way from one tiny dot in the ocean to another. The Battle for Okinawa, raging while in Europe the Allied armies were enjoying the fruits of victory, was one of the bloodiest, if not the bloodiest, battle of the entire war.
No-one in their right mind would wish another world war, but no matter how terrible it may have been, many who lived through it will also admit that when facing death every day, they never felt more intensely alive. When one said goodbye to friends or family, one might well be doing so for the last time, so worrying over trivialities was pointless, and petty disagreements and squabbles were often cast aside. Carpe Diem was not a catchphrase but a state of mind, and this meant that most people were far better at living back then than we are today. Communities were drawn together by the war. Britain as a whole was more united than it has been since; the same can be said of the United States. There was a collective understanding that the burden of war needed to be shared. This has long gone; as every year takes us further away from the war, so we become more selfish, more materialistic, more interested in the minutiae of life.
For those in the firing line, the war also provided extraordinary bonds of comradeship, that special link between brothers in arms that can only be forged in war-time; it is something that cannot be experienced or truly understood by those who have never seen active service, as any combat veteran will tell you. For all the death and destruction that surrounded them, this bond was a positive, something they have experienced that has enriched their lives; something they keep forever.
This is not to glorify war, however. One can appreciate some of the human qualities and priorities of wartime without feeling nostalgic for a time when millions of people were being killed, wounded and severed from their homes and families. Nonetheless, it is the positive aspects of war that, understandably, many veterans like to think about in their twilight years: this is basic human instinct. There is also no question that only in the last fifteen or twenty years have many of the veterans begun talking and writing about their experiences.
After the war, most wanted to get home and get on with their lives. Find a job, marry, have kids and settle into â€˜normal’ life once more. They never thought of themselves as special because everyone had been in the same boat. Only once they had retired, with their children flown the nest, did they the time have the time to really analyse what had happened to them. Most veterans tell me the same: â€˜I never really talked about it until I was in my seventies when I started going to reunions.’ Perspective takes time. A period of quarantine is needed. Most veterans need maturity, not the callowness of youth, to be able to properly weigh up the experience of what happened to them.
There is also a sense that time is marching on. Most veterans are now are over eighty and many feel the need to tell their stories before they are gone forever. And as their numbers dwindle, their experiences cease to be commonplace, but rather special instead. â€˜Only now am beginning to realise that what I did back then was pretty incredible,’ one former fighter pilot told me.
The wheel of change has been swift in recent years, which often makes the sixty years since the end of the Second World War seem further away than it really is. Yet talking to many of those who lived through those times soon draws it closer again. Sixty years is not that long really – we can still touch it through these survivors, and still find inspiration from their heroism.
Those that survive, are, of course, the lucky ones. They have had a chance to live full lives and to grow old. A former German paratrooper visited Cassino in Italy for the sixtieth anniversary of that most terrible battle. He visited all the cemeteries, hugged his former comrades and enemies, and told me the story of his friend who had died slowly in his arms. â€˜And here we all are now,’ he said, â€˜so what was the point?’ We are fortunate today that we can make the most of our youth. Europe is now united and the United States our ally still. The generation who fought in the war should not be forgotten, not now, while many still live, nor in the future when they are gone. We should learn their lessons and remember and recognise the enormous sacrifices they made. Without them and their heroic achievements I doubt very much that I would have enjoyed my twenty-first year with such carefree and contented abandon.
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