Ten years ago, when we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day, the end of the Second World War in Europe, everyone seemed to know their parts. At least in my North Pennine village they did. The walls of the local pub were adorned with war-time propaganda posters and a bonfire was lit on the same spot as in 1945. At the dance in the village hall there were WAAFs, naval officers, GIs and ARP wardens moving to the music of Glen Miller. I can’t remember if anyone did a Prince Harry although there was a touch of ‘Allo ‘Allo about some of the costumes. The raffle prize was a box of retro foodstuffs including a tin of Spam and a packet of dried egg.
What was evoked was perhaps a rather cosy British image of the war but what it displayed was considerable pride in Britain’s record in standing alone against Germany during 1940-41 and some nostalgia for the cohesion of society during the war-time years.
But the accuracy of this image of Britain at war can, of course, be challenged. It comes to us filtered by films, journalism, books and TV series; even for those who lived through the war what have become standard accounts and images may overlay memories.
Sixty years after the end of the war the ranks of those who lived through it (at least as adults) are considerably thinned. In 1995, the Queen and the Queen Mother stood on the same balcony as in May 1945, while this year only the Queen survives from the family group that marked a defining moment of victory. Do people in 2005 know their parts so well? Is there still general agreement on the basic account of Britain’s war?
Perspectives of the war have always been changing. The mere passage of time sees to that and the perspectives of those who know the war from the accounts of parents or from black and white films have inevitably differed from those who experienced its hardships, tragedies and triumphs. Now those who know of the war-time atmosphere even as second-hand memory are necessarily becoming the minority.
Historians have, as one would expect, been debating, attacking and defending the view of a sturdy and patriotic Britain, reluctant to go to war but resolute and defiant when the conflict came. Was this a war which united the nation? Was the story of cheerfulness and cohesion in the face of threatened invasion and relentless bombing a myth? What about the black market, an increase in crime, strikes and profiteering? Did the class war go on as the war between states developed? Was the positive image of Britain at war due to the success of government propaganda? In the end we can’t go back to find out, even though historians scour the archives for evidence.
In our Open University study guide, The People’s War?, James Chapman and I explore some of these issues making use of the important evidence garnered by the BBC’s on-line WW2 People’s War which invited e-mail accounts of memories of the war. The pack includes my book The Second World War (a broad account of the war and a discussion of the main debates), a Study Guide and a DVD which includes clips from newsreels and feature films. We conclude that with many reservations the by now traditional account stands up well. Yes, there is mythology in it but no account stands the test of time unless there is a strong factual basis for it. Britain at war was a remarkably cohesive, disciplined and resolute society.