Kindness in war and peace

Last Friday was VE (Victory in Europe, WWII) day. Britain’s tabloid newspapers and some other media outlets delighted in escaping from the viral gloom of recent months to show images and disseminate stories of revellers in 1945 and today. It’s something to be celebrated – the end of terrible hostilities with a fascist axis (although the war in the Pacific continued for some months more). But I found something distasteful in the jingoistic and triumphalist tone of some reports: victory over Europe seemed to be the subtext. Plucky little Britain gives a V-sign to foreigners and shows we can go it alone.

It was a relief therefore to read a moving post at Bobby Seal’s Psychogeographic Review blog. He told the story of his father’s experiences of cruelty and suffering as a prisoner of war (POW) during the war, but more importantly of the kindness he was shown by a young Polish woman. There’s a link HERE

My dad was also a POW. He was serving as a sergeant in the artillery in the N. African desert when he was taken prisoner by the Germans. His unit had been surrounded by Rommel’s forces. His CO had told him the night before capture that the officers were all retreating to safety, but that he – my dad – as the senior non-commissioned soldier, was to hold his ground as the Germans advanced, to give his officers maximum time to make their escape. What a message to give the troops: you’re expendable, we’re invaluable.

In the morning he was thus left in command of this small unit of artillerymen. They fought as long as they could. My dad saw some terrible things as they were pounded by German tanks and artillery. Finally they destroyed their own guns as surrender became inevitable. The worst thing a gunner can do, dad told me: spike his own guns.

The survivors were marched for days across the scorching desert with little water or food. Many died on the way to the POW camp.

When Italy opted out of the war and their POW camp was about to be deserted by their Italian captors, the British officer responsible for discipline among the prisoners called the prisoners together. His orders were that they were to stay put in the camp until the Germans arrived to take over control of the camp. It later emerged that this was a direct order from Montgomery, commanding the invading Allied troops in Italy. He apparently didn’t want the roads and other lines of communication ‘clogged up’ with escaping British prisoners.

My dad walked out and made for the Apenines. For some months he was sheltered and fed by a variety of mountain farmers and their families. Finally one of them turned him in – but he never forgot the kindness most Italians showed him. (Eric Newby has a fascinating account of his own similar experiences there in Love and War in the Apennines.)

He was sent on to another camp in Italy. He escaped twice. On the second occasion he’d made it almost to the Allied lines; they were just across a river. As he entered the water to swim across he was spotted by a German patrol. They opened fire, and he was forced to surrender – just metres from freedom.

A young German soldier was assigned to take him back to a camp in the sidecar of his motorbike. After some hours of driving, the motorcyclist parked up to enter an inn for food and drink. He shut my dad into an unlocked outhouse, and gave him to understand with facial expressions and gestures that he was trusting him not to try to escape, while he fetched food and drink for them both. This he did. My dad was starving and thirsty: he opted to accept the soldier’s kindness.

He spent something like four years in prison camps, first in Italy, later in Germany. I remember as a child leafing through a book he’d brought home after the war. It contained articles, drawings and cartoons made by the prisoners for their camp’s “newspaper”. I didn’t understand as a child the significance of these pieces. There was little evidence of the horrors they were experiencing.

My dad rarely spoke of these years. It was only when I was in my late teens that he told me these stories. He was clearly scarred psychologically by what he’d gone through. He never found it easy to show affection to us kids. He was often distant, distracted.

I spoke to my sister about all this at the weekend, and asked her if she had anything else I could add here. She reminded me that our dad arrived back in England soon after VE day and was stationed in a sort of rehab camp in Sussex, on the south coast. My mother was living in Hastings – in that county – at that time. She met my dad at a dance in her town that the men were allowed to attend.

It was the classical whirlwind romance. They married a few months later. My brother was born in June 1946, six months later. It took him years to do the maths and realise he was conceived before our parents were married!

He remained in the military until I was six years old. The family followed him around the world to camps where he was stationed – I was born in Germany, lived in Egypt and Cyprus (where I attended my first school), then back to Germany, with brief returns to Britain in between.

My siblings and I attended dozens of different schools between us in our childhood – all very unsettling. Even when he left the army, dad tended to be restless, and we moved house many more times, often for no apparent reason, resulting in more changes of schools for us children.

I’d like to say that he was magnanimous in his later life about his former enemies. He didn’t hate them, but was always one of those who vaunted his own country and berated foreigners in general. I guess it was my teenage rebellion against this little-Englander attitude that made me the Europhile I now am. It took me a long time to understand why he was so xenophobic.

But it’s also why I can’t stand flag-waving ultra-nationalism. It’s what’s led to the catastrophe of Brexit. Probably explains why the UK has made such a mess of responding to the pandemic: we’re so great we don’t need to learn from anyone else, our leaders seem to believe.

I started this post with reference to a psychogeographical blog; I became interested in psychogeography when I taught a unit called Sense of Place in an English degree course. I’ve posted several pieces over the years about this, from DH Lawrence in Cornwall and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project to a virtual dérive (link HERE).

On Iain Sinclair, the born-again flâneur, HERE

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25 thoughts on “Kindness in war and peace

  1. This is an outstanding blog post, Simon. I found it very moving reading about the acts of kindness that your father experienced when all around was chaos and cruelty. I recognise so much in your father’s story and the way it affected him in later life that parallels the experiences of my own father.

  2. Ho wonderful really that you know the story of your father’s experiences, so many buried those stories deep and a generation of children didn’t seem to know their fathers even though they were present. Understandably, they are difficult stories to tell without reliving them in the telling, so full credit to your Dad for the healing he must have done to be able to open himself up like that, even if it left that bitter feeling towards foreigners.
    Thank you for sharing it with us, but now I’m intrigued about this psychogeography, sounds like another post perhaps?

    • Claire: yes, it was clearly something he found hard to talk about. As for psychogeography: take a look at the links to some of my earlier posts, and Bobby S’s site. It’s about experiencing a place – especially cities – in all their layered significance, symbiotically, as it were. Baudelaire and Poe are precursors. I. Sinclair perhaps the best known exponent today. There’s a book about it by M. Coverley

  3. Simon, this was just wonderful! Thank you for sharing it. Looking forward to exploring the psychogeography entries. I am a flaneur (esse) by nature and even named a high school lit “zine” “TUMBLEWEED,” after the song.

    P.S. I may have given away my “The End of the Affair” novel with the reference to WHY WRITE during times of war, plague, etc. Maybe I can find a copy elsewhere. Take care.

      • Tumbleweed has a strong association with the American West, but they’re not native to the the U.S. either. The plant they come from is the Russian thistle and was imported by Russian settlers in California — mostly the northern area — Fort Ross in northern California is an old Russian fort, i.e. Ross = Russ(ia). But we have plenty here in the southern part of the state, too. Once driving home late from work there was a stretch of open land alongside the old (Howard) Hughes airport. There was a Santa Ana blowing, and huge “gangs” of tumbleweed were smashing against my car. I had to laugh — it was like an old sci fi movie.

  4. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    As Romain Gary, a former aviator in a French unit of the Royal Air Force during WWII once said: “Patriotism is the love of your own people, Nationalism is the hatred of others.”

  5. Wow. Thank you for sharing your father’s story, Simon – he had quite a time (to put it mildly) and I can see how his experiences would have shaped how he was after the war. I think we don’t often understand our parents until we’re much old ourselves; I can look back now on mine and put their behaviour in context. But those acts of human kindness are remarkable, and something we need to remember at the moment.

    • It’s kindness that will see us through times like this, not nationalism. And maybe Larkin was only partly right about what your parents do to you…They had their own problems

  6. Thank you for sharing this, Simon, and for the links to Bobby Seal’s blog.
    I’ve read a little bit about inter-generational trauma, mainly but not entirely in respect of Holocaust survivors. I do think we ‘inherit’ some of that trauma: from my mother’s terror of being shut in because she was trapped under a house that was bombed, to my father’s anxiety because of all that befell him as a boy in the Blitz.
    These become part of our family’s history and shape us to some extent, but we can also ‘inherit’ their stoicism.

      • Hi Simon, Maureen again. I may have mentioned this in another context (intergenerational inheritance) but my ex-husband was of New York/Puerto Rican (“Nuyorican”) heritage, a very flat out and “open” culture. I remember being so shocked that he.. took naps!.. in the middle of the day! : )

        He noticed that when he visited my family in Boston, no one would ever admit to being hungry, thirsty, or tired. We would say “Darwin, are you hungry? Darwin, do you want a glass of lemonade?” And if Darwin said “No” the person would persist until he gave in!

        I noticed how this passed over to him and me “on the road” in Spain, where he ate “Twix” all day once during along, tiring road trip to Grenada. I get VERY cranky eating sugar and nothing else, and finally blew up and yelled “How can you eat candy all day? Aren’t you hungry?!?” That was when we first talked about it, and I realized there was some sort of unconscious stoical taboo in the “Murphys of Boston” about admitting you weren’t impervious. My Grandfather Murphy was especially like this. He was a carpenter, and with the exception of taking off his long underwear in April, wore the SAME clothes outside, ALL YEAR! All my grandparents had times of serious hunger back in West Cork (twice British soldiers burned down their barns in early fall). It seemed as if some obscure “shame” had passed down. Odd!

        • That stoicism of your Boston family sounds very English – well, English of certain groups. My father‘s family were Irish Protestant- his mother (my grandmother) wouldn’t allow the Pope to be mentioned in her house. Wonder what she’d have said when I married an Irish Catholic!

  7. Thank you for sharing this. How very interesting. My own dad was scarred by war, suffered severe PTSD. He fought in the French army in Algeria as a teenager.
    I can imagine how being a POW must have affected him, and for so long.
    It can’t have been easy growing up with him. I know it wasn’t for me with my dad.
    I find that the French, UK and US rhetoric with regards to the pandemic are similar. They all called it a war, presidents trying to be seen war heroes. All three made a mess of it and don’t have much trust from the people. It’s very different in Germany and Switzerland. There is obviously also the difference between centralized and federalist countries – in Europe, I mean.

    • I had an uncle (he died long ago) who’d been a pow of the Japanese in Burma – he was very severely damaged mentally and took his own life. As for all this military and bellicose rhetoric about the virus – despicable

  8. I just came to this entry today, and I found it very moving. It’s a constant, it seems, that most of the returning vets from WWII had great trouble talking about their experiences. My own father was borderline 4F due to his extreme near sightedness, but he served in Iran (and some parts of Iraq). I have a Russian karakul (complete with a red enamel star-shaped badge with a hammer and sickle) that he said he exchanged with a Russian soldier at the end of the war. Then, after my mother died, I found his old army records. He was part of a joint Russian-American unit. I wondered if due to the political climate here after the war, he was reluctant to mention it.

    But this nothing like what your father had to endure.

    As for your brother, maybe he’s not aware how many “premature” babies were born back in the old days.

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