‘Freedom cannot be bestowed – it must be achieved’ said American writer and publisher Elbert Hubbard. The Greek philosopher Socrates defined freedom as “to find yourself, think for yourself” whilst John F Kennedy referred to it as “the great revolution in the history of man, past, present and future, is the revolution of those determined to be free”.
Freedom can and will always be what you make of it. The danger that, as time passes and memories of war fade within new generations, we take freedom for granted until and if it is threatened or lost is ever present. Never forget the value of freedom, never let it be undermined and never take it for granted.
Today, as we commemorate one single but very important day 75 years ago when war with Germany was officially declared to have ended we pay particular attention to those who lived through the second world war and particularly of those that served in our armed forces to ensure that we could be free of Nazi tyranny.
Whatever his faults may or may not have been, we should in my view never lose sight of how fortunate we were to have had such a brilliant leader in Winston Churchill and of how, through sheer guts and determination and with very limited tools, together with our US and Commonwealth allies, we finally won through to victory.
Today will serve as a very special day – one that while not only bring back happy memories of the ending of war for the ‘people’ who remember the cheers and sheer relief that it was all over. But it will not erase the tragedy of war for those that served or those who lost loved ones during six long years of conflict or of what they encountered.
VE Day was certainly a day to cheer and celebrate but sadly, it only marked the end of one dreadful chapter in our history and in the ongoing battle to ensure that we continue to live in freedom.
So today, as we move through and hopefully closer toward the ending of the ‘lockdown period’ in the weeks ahead, stop awhile and remind yourself how fortunate you and I are that today we continue to live in freedom, to say and to think whatever we will. Our freedom was hard earned by the men and women of our armed forces during the battles of world war two on land in the sea and in the air. Never forget those that served or that today are serving in our armed forces for what they did and what they continue to do – ensure that we can all live in freedom.
A picture can tell a thousand words so they say and those of you that have known me a very long time will know that, apart from my love of reading poetry, I have long had a passion for 20th century ‘political’ drawings and cartoons from the pens of David Low, E H Shepherd, Bernard Partridge, Norman Mansbridge, Leslie Illingworth and their like. I love human character drawings too from the likes of Pont, Bateman and even today the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Matt’ who remains in a class of his own!
On May 1st 1945, shortly after Mussolini, his mistress and twelve of his friends and associates were attempting to escape into Switzerland when they were arrested and shot by Italian partisans after which his body was taken to Milan, where it was displayed and insulted by the mob David Low drew a brilliant cartoon depicting a dead Mussolini lying on the ground with dogs that looked remarkably like Hyenas waiting to do what they do to prey. David Low titled the drawing ‘Tailpiece to Glory’.
Similarly, eight days later on May 8th 1945, David Low drew another superb drawing which he titled ‘The Nightmare Passes’ – this depicting a man and women each with one arm raised cheering VE Day and the other arms around each other’s shoulders. Across their backs was written ‘Common People of the World’. This particular drawing appeared just days after Hitler and Gobbels had committed suicide, Goring had been arrested, von Keitel had surrendered and the Third Reich had collapsed into anarchy.
Such is the power of art – David Low you will remember was the artist who drew the famous cartoon of Winston Churchill in 1940 with fists raised to sea and the words – Very Well, Alone!
Whilst it was of course right that those that had suffered six years of war should let their hair down and celebrate on May 8th 1945 I do not believe that we, seventy-five years on have a similar right to celebrate in quite the way that they did. Neither should we forget all those who suffered from the Nazi tyranny in Continental Europe as they remember the huge role that we played in securing their freedom.
There was of course another tragedy – that which occurred in Germany and whose people also suffered at the hands of a dictator for so long. Bear no grudge for the people of Germany today or those that might care to forget what we did for them.
As we commemorate what occurred 75 years ago today we share the belief that as we are ‘United in Freedom’ and that this will always be our answer to aggression – a reference from me to a Bernard Partridge 1939 drawing depicting Britannia’s hoisting colours of the ‘Empire’ onto the ships mast and with many Royal Navy ships in the distance and Royal Air Force biplanes flying overhead.
VE Night (x2) – written by Iris Apsland (later Iris Bruce) then aged 11 on 8th May 2005)
I went to see a bonfire
On V night on a hill
The searchlights all were glowing
And all was bright and still
Then someone raised a mighty shout
‘Throw on some wood’ they said
‘Let’s go and bring the people out
To see the embers red’
‘Let’s let off lots of fireworks
Some yellow, Green and Blue
Some Catherine wheels and rockets
And rain of every hue’
The people sang the people danced
They threw wood on the fire
And many children saw entranced
That scene, their hearts’ desire
For some had never seen before
A fire so big as that
While fireworks and searchlights
They made a union jack
And when at 4 o’clock next morn
The crowd went down the hill
And dawn was breaking far away
That memory lingered still
I’m going to see a bonfire
A bonfire on a hill
To celebrate VE night
The memory lingers still
It’s 60 years ago now
And many things have passed
But those celebrations left
Impressions that will last
We’d never seen a firework
Or pretty coloured rain
The only rockets that we knew
Inflicted deadly pain
We’d seen the dockside burning
Incendiaries in the street
But to dance around that bonfire
We thought a wondrous treat
The searchlights that had chased the planes
Made patterns in the sky
The church bells, hooters, sirens
We heard on hilltop high
We sang and danced and laughed and cried
As we went down the hill
And dawn was breaking far away
That memory lingers still
Edmund Blunden – ‘Can You Remember’ and ‘V Day’
Although ‘Can You Remember’ has nothing specifically to do with VE Day as it was written in 1936 as a reflection of his own personal memories in the ‘Great War’ I have included this poem by Edmund Blunden because it is an exploration of the way memory works. The poet asks himself if he can still remember the war and in doing so, he discovers that he can through accessing hazy memories from the back of his mind that evolve into the sharp, clear and disturbing images of the last stanza.
One of the most important messages from this poem is the impact the war had on surviving soldiers. Twenty years have passed and still the poet lives with his ghosts. The after effects of the war are as important as the devastation that took place on the battlefield when considering the powerful and futile nature of war itself.
Can you remember was first published in a volume entitled Elegy in 1937, almost twenty years after the end of the war.
Can You Remember? (by Edmund Blunden)
Yes, I still remember
The whole thing in a way;
Edge and exactitude
Depend on the day.
Of all that prodigious scene
There seems scanty loss,
Though mists mainly float and screen
Canal, spire and fosse;
Though commonly I fail to name
That once obvious Hill,
And where we went and whence we came
To be killed, or kill.
Those mists are spiritual
Evolved of countless circumstance
Of which I am sure;
Of which, at the instance
Of sound, smell, change and stir,
New-old shapes for ever
And some are sparkling, laughing, singing,
Young, heroic, mild;
And some incurable, twisted,
Shrieking, dumb, defiled.
Finally (see the links below) – written on two pages in his own hand, the until now unpublished poem by Edmund Blunden called ‘V Day’ is a personal reflection on the nature of victory in 1945 and the struggle that so many had endured over the previous six years. It is being made public for the first time to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day:
CHW (London – 8th May 2020)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785