Lessons From History: Lest We Forget

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We may not always agree with the motivations and reasons used by previous generations to justify their actions in going to war, but in losing sight of them as fellow human beings, we risk losing a sense of our own individual and collective identity.

School summer holidays and we were on the hunt for a family day out. We’re all interested in history, so we decided to visit the Royal Armouries Museum in Portsmouth, high above the city with a commanding view across the harbour and out over the Solent. The Museum is based in Fort Nelson, a labyrinthine defensive outpost built in the 1860s as part of a chain of fortifications designed to protect the naval port and the Royal Dockyard from a feared French invasion. On the day we visited, it was heaving with family groups, and it’s easy to see why: there are ramparts to climb, guns and cannon to marvel at, and tunnels — hand carved through the raw stone — to explore, leading down under the parade ground to the dark, dank chambers where soldiers waited to cut down any enemy invaders breaching the defensive walls.

As always when I visit historical places like this, I found myself tuning out the excited voices of kids and the warning tones of adults, the faraway drone of traffic on the motorway, and the throaty buzz of helicopters going to and fro from the naval base; instead, I felt as though I was listening for the long ago voices of the soldiers who lived and worked here, manning the guns, keeping watch south over the Solent and north over the Hampshire countryside in case the dreaded invasion came from the landward side instead of by sea.

I peered down the barrels of the cannon, out through the narrow slit windows and imagined what it would have been like to charge towards these walls, weighed down with equipment, knowing that there wasn’t a square inch of the approaches that lay unprotected by one or more cannon. I soaked up the chill atmosphere of the high domed chambers where barrels of munitions were stored well away from any sources of naked flame, and imagined what it would feel like to spend a night here, after the tourists had left, locked in the dark tunnels.

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We walked through display areas where the artillery exhibits ranged in age from fragments of 16th century guns to beautifully preserved artifacts from wars that took place all over the world in the 1800s and early 1900s. Some of the cannon looked at first glance more like extraordinary sculptures in bronze and iron than weapons, so intricately detailed were the inlays and carvings, particularly in some of the weapons that came from places like Burma and the Far East — such beauty and craftsmanship in objects that were to be used as purveyors of carnage.

In one area, two men in Roman gladiator costume were putting on a display of ‘gladiator training’ for younger children, and encouraging them to take part in the mock battles that followed, brandishing rubber swords and cardboard helmets bedecked with cooking foil decorations. My stepson, at 13 a little too old to take part, watched from the sidelines with a big grin on his face. Elsewhere, an older couple, also in Roman costume, were packing up their props — miniature chariots made of what looked like chipboard and balsa wood. We got chatting. They were passionate and despairing at the same time: passionate about passing on their love of history to future generations and despairing about the teaching of history as currently practiced in many of our schools. ‘They don’t teach history as a story’, said the woman. ‘It’s all fragmented; no-one is taught why things happened the way they did, or why one thing led to another. It’s all too bitty’.

We arrived at a re-creation of the ‘typical’ 1940s kitchen, part of a display on life at home during wartime: there was the steam kettle on the big range cooker, the mangle and scrubbing board in the sink, cupboards filled with tins of dried food and earthenware pots of varying sizes. In one cupboard was an old stone hot water bottle, just like the one my mother swore by until the day she died. I was born in 1963, and my parents were young adults in World War Two, so this is only just outside of living memory for me; I still have my parents’ National Identity cards and ration books amongst other precious documents in my carefully stored ‘treasure chest’. Even though they rarely spoke about their memories of the war, either to each other or to me, my parents instilled in me a respect for the experience and the sacrifice of the older generation which I often think is lacking today.

So what, you might say; is it really that important? Well, yes, I think it is. Not so long ago, on another family day out, we visited the Tank Museum in Dorset where they had a re-creation of a World War One trench complex as seen on the Western Front. With low lighting, cramped conditions, blood-covered mannequins in uniform and a vivid soundtrack of mortar and machine-gun fire, the cries of the wounded, and the crackle of radio traffic, it was as close as any museum could decently get to portraying the horror of those battles. That was why it shocked me to the core to see a father and his young son posing for a photo in one of the ‘foxholes’, smiling happily at the camera and giving the thumbs-up as if they were sitting on a bench by the seaside somewhere. ‘Show some respect!’ I wanted to shout at them, ‘People died in trenches like these!’. But instead we waited politely for the photographer — presumably the boy’s mother — to finish getting the perfect shot before traipsing on to the next display.

Why did it bother me so much? Well, ‘bother’ is the wrong word; it actually offended me. It offended my sense of respect for the dead, for the lessons that we need to learn from history in order to avoid repeating it. It offended me because of the message that it gave that young lad; that it’s OK to brush away or make light of what previous generations have experienced, regardless of whether we agree with their reasons for doing it. We are all, to one degree or another, the product of our individual and collective histories, and we forget our predecessors and their stories at our peril.

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