Posted by: mcfinder | May 6, 2011

Don’t Let Veteran’s Stories Fade Away…

With the sad but inevitable news that Claude Choules, the last surviving veteran from WW1 passed away earlier this week, I guess the press will be full of articles about their lives, television programmes dedicated to their memory and a renewed interest, for a while, in the “Great War”.

That we remember those who fought and died, or who survived is of course only right and proper but as I read about Claude Choules passing I did start to wonder if we aren’t in danger of losing those from World War II before we know it.

If you think back over the last 5 or 6 years, the last dozen or so surviving Tommie’s from WW1 had almost reached celebrity status… Men such as Harry Patch and Henry Allingham were inundated with historians, television crews, radio pundits etc. all wanting to squeeze every last drop of memory out of them before it was too late. Numerous books and documentaries detailed their stories and revelled in the horrors that they had witnessed firsthand.

I wonder though, as we have read with awe, and listened intently to the stories of these undoubtedly brave and remarkable men, have we failed to notice that those soldiers who fought in WW2 are also leaving us. Another brave and heroic generation are slowly fading away right in front of us and it will not be long before we repeat the circus act that has surrounded the last WW1 soldiers in recent years.

I wonder how many veterans of Dunkirk are left? And what about El Alamain? River Plate?  Tobruk? How many people are left that can actually tell us firsthand what it was like at Monte Cassino, or trying to cross the Rhine in Operation Market Garden.
The simple fact is that World War II ended 66 years ago and so any survivor from that conflict must now be in their 80s. Of course, they could go on for another 20 even 30 years but sadly many of them won’t and as they do leave us so their story will fade too. That’s part of the cycle of life of course, their passing really is inevitable, but as they become fewer and fewer so I am struck again by the social responsibility we all have to ensure they memories, stories and experiences live on, because one day there just won’t be any one left—after that there really is no going back.

WW2 Veterans

WW2 Veterans

So, if you know someone in your family who fought in WW2, then see if you can talk to them about it, do some research on where they fought and what they experienced. It is likely they have artefacts such as letters or medals or uniform that will bring these stories to life. Very soon this will all we will have left of these heroes, so let us all ensure we do our bit to keep the memories and stories alive. We owe it to our kids and future generations.


  1. The Sound Archive at the IWM has been recording thousands of Second World War veterans for the past forty years. The length varies from 2 hours to more like 30 hours. It is too late to get much from oral history now except with exceptional individuals – they are just too old and it was too long ago! Also I’d back off on the ‘they’re all heroes’ tack and let them tell their own stories – warts and all. Don’t force your image of the fighting man as ‘heroes’ onto them or we’ll end up with another set of cliches like ‘Butchers and Bunglers’ and ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ both of which your quotes section indicate you endorse! History is more complicated than such cliched claptrap!

    • Peter, thank you for your comment. I agree with you that the IWM has a wonderful archive of veterans, but that shouldn’t stop us talking to friends and relatives about their experiences (if they are willing/able). In a few years it will be too late and the opportunity will be lost. With regards to your other comments regarding the tone of my blog, I understand your concern. I have huge respect and am eternally thankful to all of the professional soldiers and ordinary men that fought in both world wars, and those who continue to fight and protect us today – in my eyes they are heroes. But to your exact reference to WW1 I would point you to a blog post I made almost a year ago about the Somme campaign and the ‘lions led by donkeys’ situation, where I actually defend the army leaders.

      Once again, I thank you for your for taking the time to comment on my blog – I appreciate it!

  2. Hi chum,

    Glad to hear about the Somme page will check that out – it was more the selection of quotes for the
    section that slightly troubled me! A lot of anti-Haig stuff wrenched out of context I thought! And you shoudl always footnote sources if they’re as controversial as the machine gun quote!

    Everyone should certainly always talk to veterans amongst their relatives and friends. That we can very definitely agree with. The Great War veterans ‘whoe never talked about it’ were actually very keen for the most part to talk it’s just their relatives were not interested in listening. What we call the ‘Uncle Albert syndrome’ from that Trotter family! But the historical value is falling day by day and certainly the average length of Second World War interviews that I do has dropped from 8 hours to 2 hours! Sad really! But my own memory is going so hey ho!!


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