War requires a huge support structure: the Emergency Powers Acts of May 1940 obliged many factory workers to work 12-hour shifts seven days a week. In his "never has so much" speech, Churchill announced that "the front line runs through the factories. The workmen are soldiers with different weapons but the same courage." Yet where are the memorials to civilians who were at almost as great a risk as the serving military? The UK lost 270,000 in the armed forces during the war, but 60,000 civilians were killed by bombing, and 4 million homes were damaged. In my home town of Southampton there are still unmarked mass graves of bomb victims, the unknown soldiers of the home front.
Southampton was one of the most heavily bombed provincial cities. My father was in communications, and despite trying to join up, his "reserved occupation" prevented him from doing so. Yet his non-combatant status made him almost a second-class citizen; my mother still recalls with disgust the Salvation Army doling out tea to weary troops at a remote West Country railway station, refusing any to my equally exhausted father because he was not in uniform. Likewise, my mother worked in munitions making machine- gun parts (and daily dodging bombs). This essential work is unacknowledged in these flag-waving beanos.
The issue underlines a greater one: the romantic simplification of the current commemorations (again dangerously near to "celebrations") glosses over the perhaps tiresome reality of history. Angus Calder, in his book The Myth of the Blitz, examines the construction of a "mythic" "Britain can take it" spirit, adeptly exploited by Churchill in an attempt to gain US sympathy and burnt into popular imagination by the media and popular culture.
It is a romanticism which continues today, yet is contradicted by the facts. It is politically convenient to ignore the courageous objections of Communists, nationalists and pacifists to the war; membership of the British Communist Party actually rose during the war, and some Scottish nationalists sought a separate peace with Germany. Many of the 59,192 "conchies" were reviled; one I know still cannot speak of his wartime experiences, when he was ostracised by his neighbours and bricks were tossed through his window.
War isn't PR-friendly, and bravery doesn't always wear a uniform. We
hwould do well to remember the real past, rather than a manipulated version as ersatz as a 1945 artificial egg.
The writer is a social historian and biographer.Reuse content