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Sunday, 12 November, 2000, 22:52 GMT
Remembrance Day properly understood
D Day landings in Normandy at the end of World War II
The horrors of the world wars are finally being explained
By Kevin Connolly

World War II was still raging every lunchtime when I was at primary school in the early 1960s with the part of the Germans usually played by unpopular boys, or girls.

As children born in the late fifties and early sixties, many of us had fathers or uncles who knew at first hand the gut-wrenching terror of battle.

As Roman Catholics, there were among us kids from Croat and Polish immigrant backgrounds whose families would have had their dark stories of deportation and forced labour and worse.

So, of course, we based our vision of the war on Sunday re-runs of the Great Escape, the Heroes of Telemark and the Dambusters - or for those allowed to stay up late on schoolnights, Colditz and the Secret Army.


World War II managed to be everywhere and nowhere. We read comics peopled by characters like Union Jack Jackson who taught us that the war was fought for unspecified reasons against an alliance of sausage-eating squareheads and slant-eyed sons of Nippon.

Many children learnt their war history from cartoons and caricatures
But we never thought to ask questions of the jokey railwayman said to have driven a mule-train of ammunition through the fighting in Burma or the handsome old Scot in the guards blazer who had been limping since he came round in a field hospital at Cassino 25 years before.

We were so ignorant we had no idea how little we knew, and they were cut off by diffidence, by the horror of what they had seen and by the isolation those who have been in battle feel from those who have not.

The way we were taught history did not help. Surrounded by eyewitnesses to the desperate struggle that shaped our world less than 20 years before we were born, we learned about the French wars of religion and the virtues of crop rotation.

Another world

But if we were distanced from the realities of the second World War, the first seemed hopelessly remote.

World War II pilots
Those who witnessed the war often found it hard to speak about it
There was Remembrance Day, of course, and the Poppy Appeal , although I think even older people then could not remember anyone ever observing the two minutes' silence.

But there was nothing to link the terrible losses in the trenches to the survivors around us. And nothing to explain how the war that married the tactics of the 19th century to the technology of the 20th had plucked men from ordinary lives, demanded extraordinary things of them, and then returned what was left of them to their homes.

I realised what I had missed only years later standing in the disturbing tranquility of one of the war graves in the sleepy valley of the Somme with my son Christopher.

I had been encouraged to take him there after spending a couple of days filming a group of schoolchildren from the north-east of England as they researched a school project on the Great War.

A teenager like them

One of the class, a girl of about 15, was tracing the grave of a great-uncle she had never met. A handsome, smiling young figure in a faded photograph not much older than the boys in her class.

The trenches of the Somme in World War I
Today's teenagers have a chance to understand the horrors of World War I
They traced his grave and held a moving little service beside it. And as we stood in the cold sunshine I could not help feeling a little jealous that World War II, so much more distant from them in years, seemed so much more real to them than it had to me when I was their age.

Where we had ploughed through the diplomatic manoeuvrings that resolved the Thirty Years War, they were reading their history between the lines of gravestones on old battlefields. They were seeing it all - from the hopes of glory, to the pain and fear and loss, through the eyes of somebody like themselves.

So Christopher and I found ourselves a few weeks later at the site of the battle of the Somme looking down the gently sloping ground on which a million young soldiers were killed or injured in the course of a few weeks in 1916.

History understood

As I had hoped, he was as moved as the teenagers from Newcastle, and keen to know, because of the way that history is taught these days, not just who won the battle, but how they lived, and what they thought. Better teaching and wider travelling have made this particular part of history seem less remote with the passing of time.

So when we observe the two minutes' silence on 12 November, I will not just be offering the usual prayer of thanks, that in this lucky century Christopher is travelling to Europe with sunblock and a personal stereo rather than a rifle and pack.

I will be reflecting too that the act of remembering which once seemed to be dying away, now seems likely to continue long after we are all forgotten.

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