Medal News

Volume 52, Number 5, May 2014

Valour in Tibet

Volume 52, Number 5, May 2014

Memories and medals I WATCHED The Great Escape again recently—it really is a fantastic film; along with A Bridge Too Far, The Battle of Britain, The Longest Day, The Wooden Horse, Bridge Over the River Kwai, Escape from Colditz and myriad others, it was a film I would watch with my sons on long Sunday afternoons and we would all enjoy every minute. At first I watched such films as entertainment, but gradually I realised that they weren’t the result of the imaginings of script writers but rather they were based, sometimes very accurately, on real events (The Great Escape was being shown because it was the 70th anniversary of the real life Great Escape from Stalag Luft III in March 1944). Certainly there was some artistic license involved in all the films, but in general those epics reflected the exploits of real men and I realised that my own father, and the fathers of my contemporaries, had been through such things for real. Those men, those men I knew and respected, weren’t Hollywood stars, they weren’t highly paid actors portraying real people—they WERE the real people. Sadly those real people are getting fewer and fewer. In the years I have been editing this magazine the obituaries we include therein have grown in number; the “Fading Away” section gets bigger every month and soon the men portrayed by Hollywood back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s will be no more. Next month a handful of aged veterans will assemble, probably for the last time, on the beaches of Normandy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day and then, in the Spring and Summer of next year a similar group of men will gather to commemorate VE and then VJ day. Some of those in Normandy this year won’t make it to next, they too will fade away and let’s be honest about it by the time the 75th and 80th anniversaries come along those numbers will be tragically small, the veterans still with us unbelievably frail, shadows of the men who stormed the beaches, who fought their way across Europe or in the jungles of the east. They will all, in time, join the comrades who fell in those theatres of war and all we will have left are memories and medals. We know this of course, it is the nature of all things to be temporary, nothing lasts forever and all things must pass, but there is something particularly poignant about the passing of the men who we all grew up knowing and whose exploits we all remember seeing immortalised on the silver screen. Of course there are other epic war films that we all love—Zulu being the one that immediately comes to mind for me—but the men I saw portrayed in that movie were all long gone by the time the film was shot (it came out a year after The Great Escape by the way, the latter being released in 1963) and so I could distance myself from the reality, immerse myself in the entertainment. With the World War II films those men on screen were men I could have known, and when I watched The Great Escape a few weeks ago I was struck anew by this and realised how many of those men I did once know are no longer with us. Why am I mentioning this now? Simply to remind you that whilst the next few months will be full of the anniversary of the outbreak of World War I (and so they should be) there are more immediate anniversaries to be remembered too and if we don’t pay attention to the men still around to commemorate them, then one day they won’t be here at all. We, as medal collectors and military historians, are in a privileged position: we own tangible relics of the past and we can remind people about what went before by showing them what we have in our collections and explaining what each medal was awarded for. But medals are nothing without the recipients behind them. As the next few months roll by and the anniversaries come and go we would do well to remember that. One day there will be nothing but medals and memories, but right now we still have the people amongst us who actually won those medals, people who Hollywood immortalised because they deserved to be so. One day they won’t be here anymore, one day “Fading Away” will report that the last of them has gone. That time will come sooner than I care to think about but until it does I’m going to watch every minute of the commemorations of the beginning of the end of World War II that I can and silently thank my lucky stars that I knew some of these men. In this age of celebrity, when being famous means everything to some, I’ll take meeting the real thing over the person who gets paid to portray them every time. There will always be actors, some will be wonderful exponents of their craft and when they die they will be sorely missed—as Steve McQueen is even today—but there won’t always be World War II veterans. We need to remember that and make the most of them whilst we still can!

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