Pre-teens and young teenagers mean well, but they are not always the most logical people. Later on, as a volunteer firefighter and paramedic, I would think about the streets of London, Coventry, Liverpool etc. during the Blitz, and how much fun it would have been to be a fireman in those days. I never thought about the largely innocent residents of Hamburg or Dresden, or the absolute futility of being a fireman or trying to tend to the thousands of injured women, children, and old people who were the real victims of these firestorms.
I am no teen or reckless twenty-something any longer – I have met Holocaust survivors, German veterans, Viet Nam veterans, and I know infinitely more history than I did in those days.
Today, at 11:00 am, I thought about my Dad who passed away three and a half years ago. He comes from the very far east of Poland, the area that the communists invaded two weeks after the Nazis invaded. When the war started, my grandfather, a reserve officer, was called up. He was captured by the Russians – had he not managed to escape very soon afterwards, he would have been on a train to Katyn. It was in camps like Katyn that the NKVD (later renamed the KGB) murdered some 15,000 Polish reserve officers in an effort to stamp out the Polish nation.
During the first winter of the war, my grandmother, father and aunt got a warning in the middle of the night from some Jewish neighbours. They had to leave their village immediately, because the Russians were to arrest them the next day. They escaped their village, only to have the Russians arrest them at the Lithuanian border. For the next two years, they were prisoners in the Russian concentration camps.
We know something about conditions in places like Auschwitz and Dachau. The only real difference between the German concentration camps and the Russian ones was that the Russians did it all without gas chambers. At one point, my Dad had to push a wheelbarrow of rocks out of a quarry along a treacherous 500 metre path. His daily quota was 20 loads, a walk totalling 20 kilometres. As the day wore on, he’d have to dodge the bodies of his comrades, young kids like he was, 16, 17, 18-year-olds, dead and defeated and lying in the Russian mud. It was sometimes a temptation just to lie down and join them.
After finally escaping from Russia during the winter of 1941-42, he and his surviving friends made it to Iraq, joining thousands of other Poles, all of whom were emaciated, more dead than alive. These were the teens and young men who would later fight in the British Eighth Army, under General Anders, and help push the Germans out of Italy.
My Dad was an artillery officer at the Battle of Monte Casino. He knew what was coming up, and the Poles were to try to do what the British, French, Americans, New Zealanders and Indians had been unable to do. His responsibility would be to command a forward observation post, under enemy fire, and direct the allied artillery barrage where it would do the most good. He ignored severe stomach pain to stay with and try to protect his men. When he was carried down the hill on a stretcher, it wasn’t the result of German fire. His appendix had ruptured.
I think about my uncle, too – my Mum’s younger brother. He could have represented Britain during the 1944 Olympics, as a swimmer, and equally, as a rifle shooter. But there were no Olympics Games that year. Instead, a young, 17-year-old frogman crawled up one on the Normandy beaches, along with a few others around his age. Together, using mainly knives, these Royal Marine Commandos took out many of the German bunkers just before dawn, saving countless British and Canadian lives. In 1945, he was ready to deploy to Japan. The atomic bomb saved him from that hellhole.
My Dad’s own father was trapped in Poland for the duration of the war. As an officer in the Polish Home Army, he fought the Germans, until the Polish forces trying to liberate Warsaw were betrayed by Stalin and Roosevelt.
My other grandfather, my Mum’s father, fought the Germans in Flanders – in the second war, he was in charge of catching spies along the English and Welsh west coasts. The Germans would try to insert them from across the Irish Sea, from the neutral Irish Republic. His father had been severely wounded around the turn of the century. He had served as a Regimental Sergeant Major in Afghanistan.
I think about our own dead in Afghanistan – Canadians, Brits, Poles, and yes, Americans too. They are serving there to try to keep us safe from al Qaida and the rest, people who want to do us serious harm. Are we supporting them enough? Should we keep them there longer, to try and finish the job? Should we never have sent them? I don’t know.
I’m surrounded by veterans from the second war, Korea, the Gulf War, various peace-keeping roles, and, like my great-grandfather, Afghanistan. What are they thinking? Some must certainly be remembering their own roles in protecting our freedom, and their friends who never came back. Some, like me, are thinking of their own fathers, veterans of World War II and Korea. Do any of the people at the ceremony have a relative in Afghanistan? What are they thinking about?
And as the bugle sounds again, I glance at the school children and the young Army, Navy and Air Cadets. What are they thinking? Do they really understand? I didn’t, not at their age. Do I understand now? Yes I do, much more. Will I ever understand fully? No, I won’t. Will these young kids, standing proudly in their dress uniforms with their rifles, ever have to change into combat fatigues and load their rifles for real? I pray not, but I don’t think I’ll hold my breath.