Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Britain 1940 - a country for old men

The last time, and as far as I know, the only time, when a large number of older men did something of national importance for Britain was in 1940 when they volunteered to join the Local Defence Volunteers, set up to repel the imminent threat of invasion from Hitler's Army which was 22 miles away on the French coast. The volunteers were later renamed by Churchill as the 'Home Guard' and immortalised in the T.V. series 'Dads' Army'.

On the evening of 14th May 1940, millions of people turned on their radio sets to hear 'Secretary of State for War', Anthony Eden, make this announcement :
'Since the War began the government have received countless inquiries from men of all ages who wish to do something for the defence of their country. Well now is your opportunity. We want large numbers of such men between the ages of seventeen and sixty-five to come forward and offer their services'.

Two hundred and fifty thousand men gave in their names in the first 24 hours and I have no doubt a large number were over 60. The oldest volunteer was a Scottish ex-sergeant major called Alexander Taylor, who served to the age of 80, had fought in the Sudan in 1885 and probably inspired the T.V. series writers Perry and Croft to invent Corporal Jones, who had fought the 'Fuzzy Wuzzies' in the Sudan under General Kitchener and told Captain Mannering that when it came to bayonets and the enemy
" They don't like it up them,".
I note that 'Dad's Army' is still running on one T.V. channel, forty-one years after the first black and white episode and after most of the cast have 'passed over'.

What did these old men achieve in 1940 ? Certainly, they and the younger volunteers would have been no match against the full might of an invading German Army.
One ex- army officer wrote : ' What could we have done if the coming day had suddenly spewed Huns from the skies - except run like hell, and even that would not have been much good for many of our grey beards. As a military force we were a gigantic bluff.'

The historian Norman Longmate thought that the role they played was to provide an outlet for patriotism which inspired the whole country and changed its attitude to war, in what were undoubtedly, the darkest days, in its history. I'll go along with that.

In 1940, perhaps for the last time, Britain was a country which needed, recognised and used its old men for the good of all.

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