I suppose I was a real cold-war kid having grown up under the umbrella of B.A.O.R. (The British Army On The Rhine) in the late 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s. The best way to experience ‘Remembrance Day’ is probably in a church in a regimental barracks. It doesn’t feel like ceremony, it feels more like a hallowed occasion and a reminder of ‘why we are all here’ to the serving armed forces members. As a nipper I will never forget the sound of the bugle playing the last post from behind us, and the flags hanging up with weird names like ‘Gommecourt and Serre’ embroidered onto them. It’s amazing what a nicely grouped bunch of notes with the right length and spacing can do to you and bugles and trumpets have such a piercing sound, that’s why, with drums, they were the musical instruments used as a means of communication on battlefields I guess.
Watching the news yesterday, it’s struck me once again how little the old veterans actually really talk about their experiences. They seem to play it down and find it inappropriate or start to look slightly guilty if they start to hint at what it was really like. They usually always talk about the one who never made it. I think this is a mixture of survivor’s guilt and an indication of just how good the military trains and prepares people for battle. It’s not easy convincing a human being to run into a swarm of bullets, it sort of goes against our instinct and apparently 8-10 of us would automatically run in the other direction, without a thought. What the military has done for a long time is to nurture the feeling of tightly knit groups and bonds between men who will then run into swarms of bullets because they are doing it for each other.
I’ve been to Omaha Beach and stood in the middle of it and tried to imagine 1800 corpses either side of me and then triple that to add wounded bodies. It must have been one hell of a sight and knowing how the army functions I would be very surprised if they didn’t photograph and film it all in great detail, not only because it would have looked spectacular but also to learn from it. I would imagine that there must have been whole bundles of men, probably in groups of 20-30, all piled up and collapsed in close proximity to each other killed by one enormous lashing from an MG42 magazine belt. I’ve read accounts of that and heard a Higgins landing craft pilot veteran saying that as soon as the men left the boat every single one of them was killed in an instant. So where are the pictures? Has anyone ever seen any evidence of this industrial scale killing either in film footage or still photography? It definitely exists. Where is it and why aren’t we allowed to see it? It belongs to the Ministry of Defence and it is locked away because it’s so grim and brutally honest that we can’t be trusted to understand it.
I became interested in this and I did a seminar on War photography in the First World War when I was at college doing my photography degree. The British Army only had 2 ‘official’ war photographers who presented heavily censored pictures to the public. They filmed the Battle of The Somme, thinking it would be a great victory to show the folks back home. They showed the film and included some footage of dead British soldiers being put aside for burial in it and there were reports of women fainting in the cinemas. It was the least they could do since they knew that soon enough it would be known throughout the land, by the sheer number of War Office Telegrams being delivered to bereaved families, just how costly in terms of lives the battle had been. They were in effect ‘letting them down gently’.
Attitudes at the beginning of the war were different and soldiers in the trenches were taking cameras or being sent them and taking thousands of pictures. This changed as the war went past it’s first Christmas and everything began to be censored. The Army however photographed everything, often in 3d Stereo images. If you go to Ypres there is a pub called Sanctuary Wood near a particularly nasty part of the salient called Hill 60. I went there in the 80’s and there was a pile of human bones outside the back door as you walked out to see all the preserved trenches. In the back room was a table with about 8 large wooden boxes on which had goggles on the side and you looked through them and flicked through stereo 3-D images of the battlefield. It’s pretty horrific stuff, I strongly recommend going there and having a look for yourself if they are still there.
After I finished my seminar, I think my tutor Phil Stokes became interested in seeking out the ‘real’ images of war. A lot of it is now kept in private galleries in The Imperial War Museum and you have to write to them and give good reason to request to want to have a look. Phil was a professor on a Photography degree course and they allowed him access. Weirdly enough, I bumped into him at St. Pancras Station just after he was catching the train back to Nottingham after being at the museum. I was just arriving in London because I was going to do some press or something for the band. He told me that he had just spent the day looking at these pictures and I couldn’t help noticing how he now almost behaved like a veteran himself, looking a bit vacant, not really wanting to give any details of what he had seen. ‘Shocking’ was all he could say.
My own connection with the war was my German Granddad who was shot but survived the Battle of Verdun in 1915 and my Uncle Wilfried who was a German Artillery man and lost his leg in the siege of Leningrad. My Granddad never talked about the war. My cousin told me that he watched All Quiet On The Western Front with him once when it came on the telly and afterwards my cousin asked him if that was what it was really like. He told me Granddad just said, “No, it was much worse than that.”
I’ve never heard any evidence from any family members of him ever talking about his experiences, I believe none of us really knew anything about what he went through. So, what he said to my cousin after watching the film, is all I will ever know that he said about taking part in a battle which killed some 500.000 people within a 6 mile square radius and a battle in which he himself took a bullet. (I went to Verdun once and stood in the battlefield and imagined I was the French soldier shooting at my Granddad and thinking if he had been a fraction to either side with his rifle my Granddad would have been killed and I wouldn’t have been born!)
My Uncle Wilfried was the same and he suffered terribly from survivor’s guilt and drank Vodka everyday after the war. He told me a few things because, when I was older, I sometimes would badger him about it when he was pissed. He would always stop when you could see his mind picturing things as he tried desperatly to tell me about the reality of war. He told me that he was sent into the line to relieve an SS unit which had been virtually wiped out and when they moved in, they all looked at the amount of shell craters in the ground and thought they would all die. He said he remembered very clearly hearing the shell coming down towards him, the one with his name on it. Apparently, after some experience under shellfire you can actually tell the size of the ordinance and where it’s going to land by the whistling of it when it comes in. He told me he said to himself ‘this is it, my number is up’ and then he was thrown into the air and when he landed he looked down and his leg was gone. (I think I got an edited version).
My Auntie told me that they bound his leg with a barbwire tourniquet and got him out of there but every time a shell came in they dropped the stretcher and ran for cover and he was left lying face up to the sky, wondering at which point he was going to be killed. She told me he spent weeks in a field hospital close to the line, which had mostly severely wounded dying teenagers in it, who were all screaming and crying out ‘Mummy’. She also told me his trip back to Germany was a horrendous relay of hospitals and shelters and fraught with danger as hospital ships were sunk and trains were attacked by aircraft in an all out war of attrition. It took two years to get him home.
Like the veterans on the telly yesterday, he talked a lot about dead friends, those that didn’t make it, which in his case was a lot. The Germans had 6 Million soldiers killed in the Second World War; it puts it into perspective when you think that British and Commonwealth dead totalled 350.000. (The Russians lost 24 Million or more soldiers killed).
One thing that always struck me was that he not only had to cope with all of this but he also had to do it with his head hung in shame. His medals were hidden away and we would never have known he got the Iron Cross had my cousin and me not found it rummaging around in the spare room whilst on a sleep over at his house. (I have the medals now; he gave them to me just before he died). The Veterans of Normandy on the telly yesterday are the victors and they fought a war to end tyranny, they were fighting to end something terrible and they knew what they were fighting for. My Uncle and his German ‘Kameraden’ went through the same terrible experiences and lost even more buddies but for them it was for the ’cause’ of National Socialsm. He lost his leg and his friends for that.
All the hullabaloo and pageantry was justified yesterday and we shouldn’t forget the sacrifices made, on all sides. When I was at college I went to see Schindlers List and was talking about the film when I got home to the student house where I was living. One of the girls said, “What’s the Holocaust?” People forget, people need to be reminded and as the veterans get older and die it passes into distant history. When my kids are old The First World War will be like the Battle of Waterloo was for me. We try to remember but life is about the here and now and the future. The best thing that can come out of D-Day’s 70 year anniversary celebration is Putin and the new Ukrainian chap meeting up and being reminded that conflict ends up with sad memorials and they should get together over a vodka and sort things out.
I’d love to know if anyone reading this has similar experiences with family members who were in the war or if they ever talked about it or what they said. Please add some comments if you can.