World War One started a century ago. But just a few days ago I was celebrating “War and Peace” in Folkestone at a massive nostalgia and militaria show; and tonight I will light a candle and turn off my lights to mark August 4, 1914, the date Britain entered the war.
In Folkestone it was laughs all round at the popular cast of BBC’s ‘Allo, ‘Allo! and the Gestapo chief in his long black overcoat, but round the corner there were proper German tanks and men in SS uniforms – and I stopped laughing.
The “War and Peace Revival” developed from the 1982 Tenterden Military Spectacular, at least a generation after World War Two ended. But when I started in journalism in Maidstone in the 1960s the newsroom wall still had a map of where every bomb, plane and rocket came down in Kent. I recall interviewing a man awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery on D-Day who had been advising on the making of the film “The Longest Day”. And war and entertainment are often bedfellows.
Re-enactment of medieval wars with knights in armour is interesting and “history”. But how would you feel if there was a re-enactment of an Afghanistan firefight at your local fete this summer? At what point, or at what age, do painful memories become “history”?
WW1 started for the British on August 4 and ended on November 11, 1918. My 29-year-old grandfather died on November 4 fighting the Austrians in northern Italy. Tourists to Venice fly over his grave to land at the local airport.
In WW2 bomber squadron bases were the equivalent of the 1914 trenches. Bombers flew out, some came back. Some crashed and burned on landing. The Dutch coast was the front line, the searchlights the barbed wire. My father, aged 25, was caught in the searchlights. His Wellington was shot down.
I wonder what Serjeant Charles Fowler of the Honourable Artillery Company and Squadron Leader Don Harkness DFC of 158 Squadron would have made of “War and Peace” – but their great-grandson/grandson Tom has made it to 30, which neither of them could.
As a child I played with toy aeroplanes and war games, but I stopped when I grew up – and I wonder whether it is healthy to play at war, whether in the form of “historic re-enactments” or bloodthirsty computer games which are not that distant from the dashboards used today to control “armed drones” over Afghanistan and other “war zones”.
And I begin to wonder whether fantasy and reality are getting too muddled up, and reality hits us only when someone pushes a button and a Malaysian aircraft falls from the sky, littering bodies over Ukraine.