A dignified silence

The broadcast of the 70th anniversary D-Day commemorations on television must have been highly profitable for manufacturers of tissues. Watching the ceremonies of remembrance together with old newsreel footage is a moving experience. But the sight of the few remaining veterans - hanging in there despite the relentless onslaught of time, gravity and arthritis - transports us to new levels of lachrymal activity.

"This brings back some poignant memories," I sniff.

My wife looks confused. "You weren't even born," she says.

"Of the day I took Mum, Dad and Fat Uncle Frank to school," I explain.

Some 20 years ago, my pupils completed a project on the Second World War. On our theme day, they arrived at school dressed 1940s-style to nibble Spam, gag at tripe and enjoy my mother's pig's foot soup (at least, they enjoyed it until I informed them that it really was made from a pig's feet).

In the afternoon they listened to wartime tales. My parents recounted school air-raid drills, playing hide-and-seek in bombed-out houses, lying awake at night listening for doodlebugs and drinking weak tea in an Anderson shelter during the freezing December nights of the Sheffield Blitz.

They were good stories, but apart from the one about the time my mother came home from school to find that my grandmother had cooked a delicious stew for supper, they were generally lacking in death and destruction. (The stew should have been a treat. But the next day my mother discovered that Peter, her pet rabbit, had been sacrificed for the war effort.)

The person the children really wanted to listen to was Fat Uncle Frank. He was one of those "lucky" young men who, on 6 June 1944, landed on the beaches of Normandy and by some miracle got through it physically unscathed.

Whether he was mentally unscathed is another matter. If he remembered how it felt to run headlong into a firestorm that cut down so many others, he never said. There were some things he didn't talk about. And despite the children urging him, he wasn't going to start now.

"Did you shoot anybody? Did you get shot? Did you see anybody with their head blown off?" The questions came like a hail of bullets but Fat Uncle Frank dodged the lot. He nodded, smiled and occasionally said, "Aye, oh aye." But even from the distance of a lifetime, he refused point-blank to put that day into words.

We live in intrusive times. Social media offers instant public access to everything from our deepest thoughts to what we had for lunch. Advances in technology mean that death and destruction in 3D, HD and super slow motion are available to all. But where war is concerned, nothing tells of its horror better than the dignified silence of a few old men who, by fortune or the grace of God, survive to this day.

Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield

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