Time for tears not cheers

Click to follow
The Independent Online
I WASN'T born when it started and am too young to remember much about the Second World War except the thrilling claustrophobia of spending nights in an underground air raid shelter. I do have a vague memory of being taken by my mother to Buckingham Palace in 1945, when Churchill shared the balcony with George VI and the other royals and accepted the homage of cheering, milling crowds.

I remember chiefly my mother's ambivalent feelings on that occasion, and now I understand them much better. Then, her tears puzzled me. My mother is German by birth. She came to England in 1936, unable to speak the language of her newly adopted country, and when war broke out, her accent still stigmatised her each time she opened her mouth.

Her family in Hamburg was bombed by RAF fighter pilots on what was supposed to be 'her' side - she had become a naturalised Briton when she married - just as she and I, in London, were being bombed by German Luftwaffe pilots. Her mother, and three of her four sisters, were dead by the time the war ended.

My father was posted to Germany as a member of the CCG (Control Commission of Germany) in 1947, and I vividly remember visiting my remaining German relatives and hearing stories of how they had half-starved and half-frozen to death during the war. I learnt at an early age that war evokes contradictory emotions. Even when it is over, the jubilation is never universal.

They knew that in 1918, too. The war that began in 1914 with dancing in the streets ended in deep and angry disillusionment. This sombre mood, this hope and determination that there should never be another war, is epitomised by war cemeteries, especially those of northern France. Perfectly maintained, the crosses in serried ranks, the grass cropped as short as a subaltern's hair, these graves recall the deep atavistic horror of the First World War. Nothing could be more dignified or restrained than the inscription on cross after cross: Here Lies A Soldier Known Only Unto God.

I visited these cemeteries a dozen years ago for the first time, as part of my research for a book about the Victorian group of aristocrats who called themselves The Souls. Most of them lost sons during the First World War. I went to look at the graves of men such as Raymond Asquith and Yvo Charteris, who died on the Somme in 1916.

Often the German war graves would be just a few steps away on the opposite side of the road. I searched for those of my German great-uncles, three young men who died long before I was born: Georg, Julius and August Neubert. They were reported missing, presumed dead. They were the beloved older brothers of my Tante Lidy.

When the war ended, every time a batch of German prisoners returned, Lidy (then about 15) was sent by her mother to the main Hamburg railway station to try and find out the fate of her brothers. She had to accost the soldiers, interrupt them in the middle of embracing their families, and ask them to scrutinise photographs of her brothers. 'Did you see any of them?' Each time she had to go back to her mother and say, 'No one knew.'

These war graves, on both sides of the road, bring tears to the eyes: and tears, rather than the nationalistic celebration and fun that were planned for D-Day, are the only proper response to the memory of so many deaths.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was set up in 1917 to remember individually the 1,114,000 men who fell in the First World War, and, later, the 580,000 who died in the Second. In 1917, the losses from a continuing war were recent enough, the pain raw enough, for the Commission to interpret with sensitivity the mood of the survivors - comrades or relatives - and the country.

Another of that Commission's guiding principles was equality of treatment, irrespective of rank and status. The 54,900 names on the Menin Gate at Ypres are simply listed in alphabetical order.

The former Prime Minister, with her famous injunction 'Rejoice] Rejoice]' and her anger at the sombre and reflective mood of the service in St Paul's after the Falklands war, never grasped that celebrating a war is an insult to all who died. This is why the brouhaha over the misjudged events timed for the 50th anniversary of D-Day is so embarrassing for the Tories. It shows that they have learnt nothing from the widespread dismay felt about Margaret Thatcher's ugly jubilation at the sinking of the Belgrano.

A 50th anniversary is not a cosy occasion on which to bring out the marching veterans, nostalgic pop songs, and drum up a sense of benevolent patriotism. It matters not whether the miscalculation was Peter Brooke's or Iain Sproat's or Tim Bell's or even John Major's; the revelation demeans them all.

One of the most moving comments ever made upon war was uttered by Cynthia Asquith, who lost two of her brothers and dozens of her friends in the First World War. As she stood at the window of her London home, watching newspaper sellers proclaim the Armistice, she thought (and wrote in her diary), 'The hardest thing to realise is that the war is over and they're still dead.'

Peter Pringle's column will appear in tomorrow's paper.