Volume 58, Number 2, February 2020
Before they fade THIS month’s “News and Views” features notices that two more veterans of World War II have passed away—the last known member of the Glider Pilot Regiment, Ralph Norbury, and one of the last of the “Few”, the pilots of the Battle of Britain—Maurice Moundson. That these gentlemen have died should come as no surprise—they were both centenarians and even with modern medicine 100 is, in any one’s book, very old indeed. This “comment” is not to mourn their passing, they lived long, and one hopes, happy lives and were, of course, far luckier than many of their comrades who never made it through the war at all, but rather to highlight once again how rapidly we are losing those who stood strong against the Nazi menace in the 1940s. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II; May will see us commemorate VE Day (there’s already controversy surrounding the VE celebrations, with the May Day bank holiday being moved from Monday, May 4 to Friday, May 8 to coincide with the actual Victory in Europe date and to allow a long weekend of celebration and commemoration—all very well until you realise people made plans for the previous weekend believing that that would be the long weekend as it usually is!) and August/September will see us remember VJ Day and the eventual end of hostilities. There will, I am sure, be many veterans at these events but many of them will be in wheel chairs or helped along by nurses or relatives—even the youngest now is in his 90s and many, as with the Battle of Britain pilots that remain, are in their 100s and I am fairly certain that should we be commemorating the 80th anniversary there will be hardly anybody left at all. We as medal collectors in the late 20th early 21st century have been incredibly lucky. We have been privileged to meet, to know, to befriend, men who fought alongside the recipients of the medals we now look after. Perhaps we have even known the recipients themselves and received their medals direct from them. Many of us will have known World War I veterans (there were two lovely old boys in the village where we used to live in Hampshire—Mr Cramer who served in the trenches with the army and Mr Obie who was a Royal Navy sailor, they became good friends, both of each other and of my family) and some of us will even remember meeting those who served in the Boer War; all of us will know World War II veterans. The collectors that come after us, those whose job it is to be the custodians of the medals we hold in our collections today, will not learn as we learned, first hand from those who were there, they will not hear stories of fighting across deserts near Tobruk or in the jungles of Burma told by those who actually did it. They will not hear as I once heard during a Battle of Britain Flypast at Bentley Priory, one old pilot turn to another and ask about the Spitfire flying overhead “is that the Mark I . . .? I bloody hated the Mark I”. Those that come after us will look at World War I and World War II as we, perhaps, look at the Peninsular War or Indian Mutiny should we have medals to those conflicts—as the distant past and, of course, by then they will be right. Yes, those that collect “modern” medals will be able to talk to those who were actually there, those who knew what it took to earn that award—most of those who served in the Falklands or Gulf are still very much around, as are those who served in Northern Ireland and those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq and on subsequent operations aren’t fading away anytime soon I hope—but the numbers are different and there will never be as many people who collect “modern” as who collect medals from World War II and back simply because there are fewer modern medals to collect. So it is that the vast majority of the medal collectors of the future simply won’t have the advantages that we have had over the past few decades and now, as the new “roaring 20s” begins we have to accept that by the time this new decade ends there will be few, if any at all who we can speak with about events that happened pre-1945, events of which it is often medals that are the only tangible records left. I know I’ve said this before but it is all too easy to forget that medals are far more than bits of silk and metal, more than just things to line up in a cabinet, more than just sets to complete. It is perhaps all too easy to forget that behind every group there is a man (or woman) and their story. So for my new year’s resolution (new decade’s resolution) I intend to spend a little less time worrying about what my new collecting theme should be and more time talking to those who were actually awarded the kind of medals I see on dealers’ tables every weekend. I know I’ll regret it if I don’t.
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