Something to celebrate?

By Editor, 3 September 2009 - 9:00am

Seventy years on and Sarah Williams wonders how her family felt about the news that Britain was at war again.

I woke up this morning to Neville Chamberlain’s now famous announcement that ‘this country is at war with Germany’. It was surprisingly moving and I was pleased that the BBC played such a large extract. It made a change from the usual short soundbites we are used to nowadays.

It brought to mind a press release that I had received a couple of days previously that had talked about how the company was going to ‘celebrate the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War’. Celebrate seemed the wrong word to use at the time, but even more so with the echo of Chamberlain’s measured and sombre tones ringing in my ears.

I tried to imagine what my grandparents thought as they listened to the announcement but I will never know because I never asked them. But it is hard for us to recreate those feelings. We know about Auschwitz, we know about the Dutch Hongerwinter, we know about the atrocities of the Eastern Front and the horrendous death marches. We know the war continued for six years at the cost of millions of lives. Who could have predicted that?

Then again, this was a generation that was still recovering from ‘the war to end all wars’. My grandfather, who had seen action in the trenches, wanted nothing to do with this new war. He decided to stay put in Peru, where he was working, until it was over. But there was also excitement. Although people talk about ‘the mood of a nation’, we are all individuals and experience things differently.

Take the experience of being a Land Girl, for example. For some women this was a liberating, life-enhancing experience of female camaraderie and fresh air. For others, it was back-breaking, miserable labour. For many, it was a bit of both. This range of experience can be applied to nearly all areas of the Second World War. Some people enjoyed evacuation, others didn’t. Some people enjoyed life in the army, others didn’t. Some people even enjoyed their time as a prisoner of war. There is no one experience that fits all.

That’s why we need to talk to our family to find out what their experience was and record it for future generations. It’s not enough just to look in the history books. If it is too late to do that – and for many of us, it now is – then there are still footprints among the records that can help to personalise the experience of our ancestors. Military records are one thing, and we have covered them in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, but you can also find out more about family in the Home Front.

Returning to the subject of Land Girls, I was fascinated by the advice in our current issue on how you can personalise your ancestor’s Land Girl experience with old newspapers, WLA magazines and other records. ‘Celebrate’ may be the wrong word to use regarding the outbreak of war but we do have something to celebrate about what our country achieved in difficult times and uncovering our own family story is, I think, one of the best ways to do it.

Sarah Williams is editor of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine. Click here to read more from the magazine team

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