My dad served in a Lancaster bomber over Germany in 1944 and 1945. He was the bomb-aimer and so quite literally dropped bombs on Allied targets or, as we also know them people in Dresden.
He was killed in 1979, and he may well have opened up more had he lived longer, but during his lifetime he never spoke of the war, never went to a Remembrance Service, never wore a poppy. It was only after my mother died in 2014 that we discovered, in an old shoe box, two things about my dad.
First, he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for some unknown act of heroism, presumably in the skies. We don’t know if he told my mother of this, but we found a letter from the headmaster of his old school (dad left school at 13 for the steelworks and was 22 at war’s end), apologizing for being so slow to write to congratulate my dad, and saying what pride he had brought to the school. For that letter to be kept in the shoe-box alongside the medal suggests it meant a lot to my dad.
But it wasn’t something he ever shared.
Second, in the same collection of old bits and pieces, there were youth hostel membership cards with hostel stamps on them. An examination of these shows that my dad travelled, probably on the single speed steel frame bike he rode to work till it was stolen in the late 1960s — we know more about his two bikes in life than we know about hs wartime — to Norway and Denmark, and to Switzerland in 1947 and 1948.
Thes seem an extraordinary journeys for a low-paid steelworker to have made, and while as his children we can only guess — again, he never mentioned anything and as far as we know never travelled abroad again — we do wonder whether he was paying some kind of quiet personal homage to those he had been a part of killing (we think he might have had trouble entering Germany at the time, and it is unlikely youth hostels would have been open, but the places he went to were near the German border).
Taken together, we get a picture of a man greatly affected by his wartime experience, to the extent that he undertook a form of Remembrance, but for whom that remembrance was a deeply private thing. Maybe he was one of the people described by Chris:
One or two generations ago, Remembrance Day was about strong people struggling with horrors and grief we cannot imagine.
So it’s with this family experience in mind that I watch the great outpouring of patriotism today and think: be careful what you wish for. I’m not sure my dad ever got over it.