All who fought for Britain during wartime shall be remembered

Sidmouth Remembrance Sunday service. Picture: Simon Horn

Remembering the ultimate sacrifice made in war - Credit: Archant

“Old soldiers never die,” the old saying goes. “They simply fade away.” The quote is often attributed to General Douglas MacArthur, the famous US military commander from the Second World War.

As a child growing up in the 1980s, there were still a fair few First World War veterans around. Some of these survivors, sometimes wheelchair-bound, always at the very least in their eighties could be glimpsed attending the annual Cenotaph ceremony on Remembrance Sunday broadcast on TV. At that point, Second World War veterans, often in their sixties and seventies, were still in plentiful supply. Some were still in work: after all, an eighteen-year-old who joined the armed forces one year before the end of the war in 1944 would only have turned sixty-five in 1991. It could often be safely assumed men of a certain vintage were likely to have had war experience. A small number of people indeed served in both world wars.

Many prominent public figures still had memories of service in the 1939-45 conflict, men such as Denis Healey, the Labour politician who had been the military landing officer at Anzio in 1944, Tony Benn, who had served in the RAF and whose brother had been killed in the conflict and actors such as Richard Burton, Sir Christopher Lee, Sir Alec Guinness and comedy stars such as Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes, Frank Muir and Denis Norden. Fictional ‘old soldiers’ were everywhere too such as the increasingly vague Major (Ballard Berkely) in Fawlty Towers or the smooth-talking Captain Peacock (played by real life wartime RAF veteran, Frank Thornton) in the department store-based sitcom, Are You Being Served? Actor Brian Wilde also played Foggy, a pompous veteran who could never quite leave his war years behind him in Last of the Summer Wine. Wilde’s co-star in Porridge, Fulton Mackay also gave full vent to his own genuine military bearing in his memorable role as the prison officer, also called Mackay in the popular Ronnie Barker sitcom.

Today, everything is different. The world’s last ever surviving veteran of the First World War died in 2012. She was Briton, Florence Green who had served in the RAF in the officers’ mess. She died 15 days before what would have been her 111th birthday.

The numbers of those who survived service in the Second World War are now dwindling too. 77 years after VJ Day, the number of surviving World War veterans in the UK is only a fraction of the 600,000 or so Britons now thought to be over the age of 90. Indeed, for anyone to have any real memory of the war at all, even as a young child experiencing an air-raid (for example) on the Home Front, a person would now have to be close to 80-years-old at the very least.

Of course, the two world wars do not represent the sum of all the wars in which Britain has been involved. Since 1945 alone, Britain has been engaged in numerous military campaigns throughout the world. Between 1949 and 1960, all physically fit males between the ages of 17 and 21 were required to serve in the armed forces for18 months. Many National Servicemen found themselves involved in the Korean War, in which an international effort fought to defend South Korea from the Communist forces of North Korea between 1950 and 1953. It is a conflict sometimes dubbed the ‘forgotten war.’ Other trouble-spots which caught Britain’s attention at this time included the Malayan Emergency, the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya and the Suez Crisis of 1956.

This is not to overlook the other critical engagements which Britain has become drawn into since the last National Serviceman was called up in 1960. The Falklands War (1982) and Operation: Desert Storm (1991) are two of the most famous of these but there have been many others. Some such as The Troubles in Northern Ireland (1968-1998) and the more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven very enduring indeed.

Ultimately, it is the sacrifice of those who lost or risked their lives fighting for Britain in all of these wars which will be remembered this weekend on Remembrance Sunday.