St Peter's School

6 June 2019

PoppiesToday is the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings and is being marked by several events in France commemorating the landing of Allied forces on mainland Europe which proved to be one of the most pivotal moments of the Second World War ultimately leading to the overthrow of Nazi Germany.

It is rightly the subject of much media interest and I am sure that many of you saw the commemorations yesterday with more to follow today. Stephen Spielberg’s film, Saving Private Ryan, begins with a 13-minute long opening shot showing troops in landing crafts approaching the beaches with the Nazi machine gun nests above and the sand covered with obstacles and barbed wire. If you haven’t seen then it is worth viewing at some point although undoubtedly a harrowing experience. Impressive though Spielberg’s film is, by necessity it can only fall very far short of what it must have been like for the soldiers involved as no film can truly create convey the smells, sound or sheer emotional intensity of battle.

History used to be portrayed as the story of great people and great events. A narrative of kings, queens and the nobility. An interesting development over the last few decades has been a focus on seeing history through the eyes of the multitude of smaller characters and in this gaining a sense of the whole story through the accumulation of individual experiences. An excellent example can be seen in the works of Anthony Beevor and his books such as Stalingrad and Berlin where he weaves together painstakingly researched personal testimonies to enable a full understanding of the bigger picture.

As a small example, my Grandfather was involved in the allied landings of 1944. He went over on June 7th – D-Day+1 with his tank. It happened to be his birthday, He was 28 years old, and always joked that Churchill had given him an overseas holiday for his present. He was only a Private but his story along with the tens of thousands of others is part of that much bigger picture. I have his kit bag which was with him at the time which I thought you might be interested to see and although old and tattered with his name now fading it still feels special to me to hold it and feel some connection back through time. He went with his tank through France and was part of the group who liberated Belgium and told a wonderful story of the King of the Belgians coming to thank them as they formed up their tanks in the Grand Platz in Brussels. He didn’t make it to Berlin though as his tank was blown up and he was invalided back home to Somerset with shrapnel wounds. After he recovered he went back to his former life as a carpenter, fire station officer and bell-ringer in his local church. One ordinary man among thousands collectively creating extraordinary history.

To me, this is one of the things that makes history so fascinating. The grand narrative sweep made up of the sum of smaller parts and it strikes me that we all need to have a handle on both in so many things in life. It is crucial to be bifocal and able to shift from the bigger picture to the detail. To combine the words of Goethe – “anyone who cannot draw on 2,000 years of human history is living from hand to mouth” with the poetry of William Blake – “to see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour”. So history was made yesterday for girls’ cricket at St Peter’s and we remember history from 75 years ago today. It all adds up to the sum total of the human experience and life’s rich tapestry.