Britain at War: Commemorating the Second World War
Quote:This week we shall mark the 70th anniversary of the Munich agreement, one of the most shameful moments in the history of these islands.
Britain, in the autumn of 1938, was still something approaching a great power, with an empire on which the sun never set and despite the ravages of the slump earlier in the decade more prosperous than almost any other country on the planet. It was 70 years ago this week that we, in the words of our then prime minister Neville Chamberlain, decided that Czechoslovakia was merely a faraway country of which we knew little, and that if a chunk of it full of ethnic Germans was given to Hitlers Reich no-one would be any the worse off.
We have to be careful of hindsight: but we know well that this was not Hitlers last territorial claim in Europe. A reading of Mein Kampf, the verbose and rambling personal manifesto he had written in prison in the early 1920s, would have pointed us down the true path, just as it would have warned of the horrific fate of European Jewry.
The following March Hitler simply took the rest of Czechoslovakia, then on September 1st 1939 sent his Panzers into Poland. In the next few years there will be many 70th anniversaries, many of them wretched, some of them glorious, as we recall momentous events that occurred within living memory, and a barbarism that soiled a Europe now apparently enjoying permanent peace.
With the 70th anniversary of the capitulation to Hitler at Munich by Chamberlain and the French Prime Minister, Daladier, so too is The Daily Telegraph embarking upon a large-scale historical project to commemorate the Second World War.
Our aim, over the months ahead, is to collect as many memories as possible of those who took part in it or were affected by it. Those of us not born at the time have, for most of our lives, taken for granted the presence of those who were witness to the bloodshed, the struggle and, ultimately, our victory. They have always been there to answer our questions about "what it was like".
Yet to have fought in the Second World War one needs to be at least 81 or 82; to have been in the British Expeditionary Force that went to France in the autumn of 1939 one would be at least 88. Children evacuated that autumn would all now be over 70, and scarcely any younger to remember the V1s and V2s that terrorized southern England in the last year of the war.
Even with the greater longevity of our elderly people, those who remember the war are becoming greatly fewer each year. Most will have shared their memories with children, grandchildren and younger friends: comparatively few, however, will have committed their memories to print. Our project will, we hope, encourage many thousands more to do so.
Each week for the next 10 weeks one of Britains foremost historians of the Second World War, Andrew Roberts, will write on one of the main aspects of the conflict.
We hope this will stimulate not merely comments on our website, but provide the stimulus for those with memories of each event to write in with them in as much detail as they can manage. In this way, and over the months ahead, we will establish on our website a significant repository of historical experience that will not merely be of interest to other readers with their own recollections of the time, but to anyone who wants to know more about the war and about the role of those who fought in it.
Former soldiers, sailors, airmen, WRACs, WRENs, WAAFs, SOE operatives, Home Guard, ARP wardens, land girls, Bevin boys, factory conscripts, police, ambulance crew, fire crew and fire watchers, and those in civilian callings affected by the war: all have stories to tell that, when pieced together, give witness to how life really was both on active service and on the home front when Britain was at peril between 1939 and 1945.
Perhaps it is because we have so much newsreel footage of the Blitz, the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk, the war at sea, the war in the Far East, the North African campaign, the Normandy Landings and the assault on Germany that we have been complacent about collecting, as rigorously as we should, the testimonies of those who were witnesses to war. Relatively few years remain in which we can do this; that is why, with this sequence of 70th anniversaries now starting, we have decided to do it now.
No recollection is too big or too small: the memories you may have to share could cover the whole campaign from the Normandy beaches to Luneberg Heath and the German surrender; or it could simply be the memories of watching Spitfires and Messerschmitts doing battle in cloudless skies over Kent in 1940.
To many young people the war is so distant as to be incomprehensible. It is studied formally in schools and is a key part of the GCSE syllabus. All eyewitness accounts are intensely valuable not least for the way in which they bring the past to life for those who are trying to understand not just what the war was, but what history is. We can never know everything about how life was in those years, but we can always know much more than we do.
Many of our most assiduous emailers are elderly people; equally, many have not taken up the internet. If you have a parent, grandparent, or elderly friend or relative who wants to contribute to our project, then please do help them by mailing us on their behalf. Or they can write to us at the Daily Telegraph and we will put their submissions online. We regard our older readers not just as the greatest historical resource we as a newspaper have, but as a significant resource for British and world studies of the history of the Second World War: anything you have to contribute to us will be regarded as valuable and welcome.
It is also our intention to follow up some of the submissions with requests for video interview with some of those with more striking, rare or unusual experiences. Such interviews would be available on our website and the best would be collated for a DVD of the war memories of our readers to be distributed with the paper during the next year or so. In this way the project will have lasting significance and value.
Although the events set in train by Munich exactly 70 years ago were terrible and destructive, they were also pivotal in the history of our country and our civilization, and represent for Britain and its people one of the finest achievements in their history. Thus were amends made for the shame of September 1938. The experiences of those years shaped our interpretation of the world for decades afterwards, and in many respects still do today. If we can organize a mobilisation of our readers recollections as effective as Britains mobilisation when appeasement failed, then we shall have a matchless archive of memories that will last for all time.
The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall. - Che Guevara
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