Tony Rennell, Daily Mail (London), November 21, 2009
Sarah Robinson was just a teenager when World War II broke out.
She endured the Blitz, watching for fires during Luftwaffe air raids armed with a bucket of sand.
Often she would walk ten miles home from work in the blackout, with bombs falling around her.
As soon as she turned 18, she joined the Royal Navy to do her bit for the war effort.
Hers was a small part in a huge, history-making enterprise, and her contribution epitomises her generation’s sense of service and sacrifice.
Nearly 400,000 Britons died. Millions more were scarred by the experience, physically and mentally.
But was it worth it? Her answer–and the answer of many of her contemporaries, now in their 80s and 90s–is a resounding No.
They despise what has become of the Britain they once fought to save. It’s not our country any more, they say, in sorrow and anger.
Sarah harks back to the days when ‘people kept the laws and were polite and courteous. We didn’t have much money, but we were contented and happy.
‘People whistled and sang. There was still the United Kingdom, our country, which we had fought for, our freedom, democracy. But where is it now?!’
The feelings of Sarah and others from this most selfless generation about the modern world have been recorded by a Tyneside writer, 33-year-old Nicholas Pringle.
Curious about his grandmother’s generation and what they did in the war, he decided three years ago to send letters to local newspapers across the country asking for those who lived through the war to write to him with their experiences.
He rounded off his request with this question: ‘Are you happy with how your country has turned out? What do you think your fallen comrades would have made of life in 21st-century Britain?’
What is extraordinary about the 150 replies he received, which he has now published as a book, is their vehement insistence that those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war would now be turning in their graves.
There is the occasional bright spot–one veteran describes Britain as ‘still the best country in the world’–but the overall tone is one of profound disillusionment.
‘I sing no song for the once-proud country that spawned me,’ wrote a sailor who fought the Japanese in the Far East, ‘and I wonder why I ever tried.’
‘My patriotism has gone out of the window,’ said another ex-serviceman.
In the Mail this week, Gordon Brown wrote about ‘our debt of dignity to the war generation’.
But the truth that emerges from these letters is that the survivors of that war generation have nothing but contempt for his government.
They feel, in a word that leaps out time and time again, ‘betrayed’.
New Labour, said one ex-commando who took part in the disastrous Dieppe raid in which 4,000 men were lost, was ‘more of a shambles than some of the actions I was in during the war, and that’s saying something!’
He added: ‘Those comrades of mine who never made it back would be appalled if they could see the world as it is today.
‘They would wonder what happened to the Brave New World they fought so damned hard for.’
Nor can David Cameron take any comfort from the elderly.
His ‘hug a hoodie’ advice was scorned by a generation of brave men and women now too scared, they say, to leave their homes at night.
Immigration tops the list of complaints.
‘People come here, get everything they ask, for free, laughing at our expense,’ was a typical observation.
‘We old people struggle on pensions, not knowing how to make ends meet. If I had my time again, would we fight as before? Need you ask?’
Many writers are bewildered and overwhelmed by a multicultural Britain that, they say bitterly, they were never consulted about nor feel comfortable with.
‘Our country has been given away to foreigners while we, the generation who fought for freedom, are having to sell our homes for care and are being refused medical services because incomers come first.’
Her words may be offensive to many–and rightly so–but Sarah Robinson defiantly states: ‘We are affronted by the appearance of Muslim and Sikh costumes on our streets.’
But then political correctness is another thing they take strong issue with, along with politicians generally–‘liars, incompetents and self-aggrandising charlatans’ (with the revealing exception of Enoch Powell).
The loss of British sovereignty to the European Union caused almost as much distress. ‘Nearly all veterans want Britain to leave the EU,’ wrote one.
Frank, a merchant navy sailor, thought of those who gave their lives ‘for King and country’, only for Britain to become ‘an offshore island of a Europe where France and Germany hold sway. Ironic, isn’t it?’
As a group, they feel furious at not being able to speak their minds.
They see the lack of debate and the damning of dissenters as racists or Little Englanders as deeply upsetting affronts to freedom of speech.
‘Our British culture is draining away at an ever increasing pace,’ wrote an ex-Durham Light Infantryman, ‘and we are almost forbidden to make any comment.’
A widow from Solihull blamed the Thatcher years ‘when we started to lose all our industry and profit became the only aim in life’.
Her husband, a veteran of Dunkirk and Burma, died a disappointed man, believing that his seven years in the Army were wasted.
‘It is 18 years since I lost him and as I look around parts of Birmingham today you would never know you were in England,’ she wrote.
‘He would have hated it. He also disliked the immoral way things are going. I don’t think people are really happy now, for all the modern, easy-living conveniences.
‘I disagree with same-sex marriages, schoolgirl mothers, rubbish TV programmes, so-called celebrities and, most of all, unlimited immigration.
‘I am very unhappy about the way this country is being transformed. I go nowhere after dark. I don’t even answer my doorbell then.’
A Desert Rat who battled his way through El Alamein, Sicily, Italy and Greece was in despair.
‘This is not the country I fought for. Political correctness, lack of discipline, compensation madness, uncontrolled immigration–the “do-gooders” have a lot to answer for.
‘If you see youngsters doing something they shouldn’t and you say anything, you just get a mouthful of foul language.’
Undoubtedly, some of the complaints are ‘grumpy old man’ gripes, as the veterans themselves recognise–from chewing gum on pavements and motorists using mobile phones to the march of computerisation (‘why can’t I just go to the station and buy a railway ticket?’) and the dearth of pop music tunes you can hum.
But it is the fundamental change in society’s values which they find hardest to come to terms with.
Bring back birching and hanging, the sanctions they grew up with, they say. Put more bobbies back on the beat.
‘We were rigidly taught good manners and respect for older people,’ said a wartime WAAF, ‘but the nanny state has ruined all that. Television programmes are full of violence and obscene language.
This Land of Hope and Glory is in reality a land of yobs, drug addicts, drunkard youths and teenage mothers who think they are owed all for nothing.’
Aged 85, she has little wish to go on living.
For others, the strength of character that got them through the war is still helping them to survive the disappointments of peacetime.
A crofter’s son from Scotland who served on the Arctic convoys taking supplies to Russia found the immediate post-war years hard.
‘In those days we had no welfare support from any source. It was as though we had served our country to the full and were then forgotten.
‘However, we were very resilient and determined to make a go of it, and many of us, including myself, succeeded.
‘How times have changed now, with the countless many clamouring to get welfare benefits for the asking.’
A medic who made it through Dunkirk and D-Day thought the fallen would be appalled by the lack of manners in modern life and the worship of celebrities, plus ‘the patent dishonesty of politicians’.
Another common issue was their bemusement at the idea anyone could live in constant debt.
‘We were brought up to believe that if you hadn’t the money, you waited till you had!’ one wrote.
However, this particular man was unusual among the 150 respondents in believing that there were many pluses to modern life.
He even had a good word to say about the European Union and felt it would appeal to the fallen ‘if only for maintaining the peace in Europe over the past 60 years or so’.
He praised the breaking down of class barriers in Britain compared with the years when he was young and ‘infinitely’ increased prosperity.
‘More clothes, cars, holidays abroad, home ownership. As a young teacher in the Fifties I had one suit (Army issue) and the luxury of a sports jacket and flannels at the weekend.
‘Education has made vast progress. In my early days I taught classes of 50. Only five per cent of children went on to further education compared with over 40 per cent today.
‘The emancipation of women has also been a huge plus, with the introduction of the Pill a large contributor. Before the war, women teachers were dismissed as soon as they married.’
A Land Girl who laboured on farms in Devon during the war agreed that ‘we have so much to be grateful for.
‘So much progress has been made to transform the standard of living since the war.’
But she could not help asking whether people were any happier.
She bemoaned the advent of the Pill and the collapse of sexual morality. ‘In my day, drugs were unknown, families remained together, divorce was a rarity and children felt secure.
‘Were our sacrifices made so hooligans may run wild? And aggressive behaviour be accepted as the norm by TV interviewers and society in general?’
A captain with a Military Cross for valour under fire thought Britain was still the best country in the world.
The ‘occasional’ sight of parents and nicely dressed children gave an otherwise gloomy veteran of the Italian campaign a sense that ‘what we did all those years ago was not for nothing’.
A grandmother, the widow of a Royal Marine who took part in the D-Day landings, felt the National Health Service had descended into chaos but was grateful for a pensioner’s free television licence, ‘which brings art, travel and animals into my home’, and being able to text her grandchildren.
Just being alive was a bonus. ‘Although I hate what is happening to our country, I am so happy to be here, grumbling, but remembering better, happier days,’ she wrote.
But one of the bitterest complaints of the veterans was that their trenchant views on many of the matters aired here were constantly ignored by those in authority.
Their letters of complaint to councillors and MPs went unanswered.
It was as if they didn’t matter, except when wheeled out for the rituals of Remembrance Day.
One person complained it is not right those lost in the World Wars are only remembered publicly on Remembrance Day
‘Why do so many of the British public confuse sentimentality with genuine concern for others?’ asked one letter-writer.
But this was the generation honoured in Remembrance services last weekend, showered with gratitude and teary-eyed sentiments as their dwindling ranks marched unsteadily past the Cenotaph and other war memorials throughout the UK.
The overall impression any reader of the letters gets is that this generation feel unheard, unwanted and unimportant.
This remarkable collection of their thoughts should give us pause for reflection.
They may be deemed beyond their sell-by date (and many of their views may seem unacceptable, flouting every sort of ‘ism’ imaginable) but, by their deeds of 60-plus years ago, they have won the right to be listened to and their disillusionment noted with respect.
In one letter in this collection, an RAF mechanic quoted a poem about comrades who fell in battle: ‘I mourned them then, But now surviving in a world, Indifferent to their hopes and dreams, I grieve more for the living.’
o The Unknown Warriors by Nicholas Pringle, £11.69. For copies, go to the website www.theunknownwarriors.co.uk