We lived in England while the United Nations was actively involved in bombing raids during the Bosnian war. There were several American air force bases around our village, and one in particular regularly sent bombers flying overhead, so low that you could almost see the pilots’ faces as they flew over.
It was an uncomfortable feeling, not only because we knew where those planes were headed and what they would do when they reached their destination, but it was uncomfortable for us because we were from Canada, and although we had relatives who’d served in our armed forces during wars, we had never witnessed the machinery of war in action before. It felt very different actually witnessing even that much. It was closer to an active conflict than I’d ever wanted to be.
The experience made me look at the beautiful green countryside dotted with ancient thatched cottages differently, and I would try to envision what it must have looked like, all those years ago, to see not only allied planes departing, but to watch helplessly as Hilter’s fighters flew overhead.
The area where we lived was steeped in the history of the world wars. Our village, Thorpe Waterville, in Northamptonshire, was a stone’s throw from Lilford Hall. I passed it regularly. A magnificent building, it had been used as an American field hospital during WWII.
The village of Polebrook, a few miles away, had an airfield during the war. Clark Gable, the well known actor, had joined the American Air Force and was stationed in Polebrook. I was told that Jimmy Stewart who’d also enrolled in the Air Force, had frequented the nearby city of Peterborough during the war.
Glenn Miller, the famed band leader, boarded a plane at an air force base not too far from where we lived, enroute to Paris, France on December 15, 1944, never to seen again.
I mention Clark, and Jimmy, and Glenn, not because of the importance of their service above all others, but because they are names that you will recognize. We once visited a pub called The Vane Arms in the small village of Sudborough. It was filled with reminders of the service of nameless individuals. Pennies are wedged into a beam over its fireplace. The pennies were placed there by airmen before their missions. If they returned, they removed their pennies from the beam and purchased drinks with them. If they didn’t return, the pennies were bent over in remembrance and remain there to this day. You can see pictures here.
While we lived there, we were privy to many other sites and stories about England during the wars, sites and stories often unknown to North Americans, which helped us to gain a fresh perspective of something so old. We were able to experience what it would have been like to walk through a WWI trench, or sit in a bomb shelter during a WWII air raid at the The Imperial War Museum in London. And, I will never forget the sight of small graveyards in the middle of farmers’ fields visible from the roadways in France, or the humbling magnificence of the Menin Gates etched with thousands of names of the dead and missing British and Commonwealth soldiers from WWI. The Gates are found in Belgium in the town of Ypres, a town that was reduced to rubble because it was bombed so heavily during WWI that a man on horseback could see across the entire town.
I’d had uncles who’d served overseas, one joined the navy and drove boatloads of soldiers to the beaches on D Day, another was involved in the liberation of Holland. As a child, I’d heard their stories, rarely shared, and they were horrifying.
My uncles were still teenagers when they served. As a child, I couldn’t appreciate just how young they were, but now, as a mother of children in their 20’s, I understand now how young they were and how horrific it must have been for all concerned to send their children on their way to war, still so wet behind the ears not knowing much of life, without knowing if they would ever come back to join the family circle.
I think about these people and places, and the pennies, especially at this time of the year and I remember.
Photo courtesy of Evgeni Dinev | Freedigitalphotos.net