Today is VE Day in the UK and Europe but I doubt many people in my circle give it a moment’s thought. I think we are incredibly lucky and I hope that it may always be so, that we in Australia have had so little experience of living in a war zone.
Each evening while preparing dinner, this household logs onto the news coverage. That statement will give you a hint at the age of the viewers but not of their experiences. Not only do I listen to the news commentary but I also have the accompanying commentary that is proffered, to the speakers in general from our side of the screen whenever an opinion is expressed that is considered objectionable, pathetic, wimpy or just plain stupid. But from one who has experienced war and its horrors, what really gets the verbal barrage going are what he calls ‘war porn’, the frequently replicated, very emotive, images of refugees fleeing with injured children, of explosions, air raids and the crumbling walls of destroyed homes.
Occasionally I turn the pages of a French newspaper from World War 1 and when I see the images of the flattened towns I wonder how I would begin trying to repair the fabric of my family’s life if I had no home, no bank to get money and no baker or butcher to buy the food even if there was some there to buy. Imagine if suddenly there was no supermarket to buy dinner for the evening’s meal, no gas to cook with, no electricity to recharge the phone, no running water to flush the toilet. Hungry children give your life an impetus you don’t know you have.
What if you had no roof to shelter from the tropical rain, no towels to dry yourself with or a change of knickers? This does happen to families in Australia when a bushfire rages through a town, or floods sweep away homes, and it is heartening to see how generous the surrounding communities are in supporting these families. But what if it was the entire town, the whole state, the country? Then what do you do?
On my computer, I have a photo which I will always keep as a reminder of how awful war is. It is poignant for me, because I like sewing. I adore the sensual feel of fabric as its slides between my fingers and will wrap fabric around my shoulders to see the drape when choosing material for dresses, curtains and cushions. As a primary aged student I was taught the tedious but useful skill of hand hemming and have owned a sewing machine since my early twenties. The sewing machine, a tool that gave women freedom from drudgery has become for me a symbol of the savagery of war because a year ago I found myself in an unfamiliar part of central France walking through a town that is a memorial to World War Two.
radour-sur-Glane is sobering. There is a museum at the entrance to remember the 642 men, women and children who were rounded up by the Nazis; the women and children tear-gassed and shot in the town’s church, the men shot in groups, and the town set on fire and destroyed. You walk through the museum into the street, and walk past the gutted buildings with dandelions growing through the grass that carpets the ground floors of the homes. Although there are trees shading the streets there are very few birds and it feels as if they also are too frightened to return. The town has been left as it was by the Nazi army. What caught me in the throat and made it feel so real, were the items that survived the fire and were left there by the community, in particular the sewing machine. In nearly every building I walked past, sometimes on a table, sometimes in a tangle of rusting metal, a sewing machine could be seen.
How do you even begin to describe living with fear all the time, the thundering noise of the planes and the bombs, the dirt, the chaos, the rubble, the sound of explosions, of children crying and people moaning and the smell; of gas, of stale water, of smoke, of fear and of death. I don’t think we can imagine what it is like to feel the visceral agony of war. Let us encourage our children to tolerate differences and ensure this never happens again.
The consequences of war are ghastly and we need to remember so that we don’t forget.