“Let us go forward together”: the cases for and against the people’s war in England

Kate Greer

History and German, Class of 2020

At the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, May 2018.

I had been to London once before, when I was thirteen; I didn’t retain many details about the city. During that first trip, I toured a few places in England with my church choir, performing concerts in various cathedrals and visiting historical sites. It was here that I first considered studying history, and it was here that I started critically considering the ways in which other countries are different from mine. I noticed that England possessed an energy for national pride, tradition, and legacy. When I was 13, I saw this pride through their love of their monarchy and religious significance in collective world history. Now, at age twenty, during my second stay in London, I have noticed the pride that surrounds the national narrative of “The People’s War” during and after World War II.

On the first day, the whole group met in the lobby of our hotel in London. We had seen each other before the start of our study abroad program, when we had all been traveling independently in Dublin (other groups went to Edinburgh and Amsterdam), but it was good to officially assemble in comradeship at last. We spent those first hours in London getting oriented to the Underground, watching a military drill and parade at St. James Park, and finding our way around the bustling metropolis. I observed that the English were very pleased with their national traditions, such as the fanfare of the queensguard, the efficiency of their public transportation, and royal weddings – anticipation of Prince Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle had the whole country buzzing.

The comrades of the World War II study abroad program gather to hear a site report in St. James Park, London.

Our major World War II sites in England were the Churchill War Rooms, the Royal Air Force Bomber Command Memorial, Bletchley Park, and the Imperial War Museum. Throughout our time in the country, we heard presentations from our classmates at the assorted sites about Winston Churchill’s bunker, the special relationship between the United States and Great Britain during the war, the Blitz, and the Kindertransports of Jewish children from the continent to England. The theme of “The People’s War” was truly visible in all of the sites and reports. The War Rooms and Bletchley Park had separate exhibits that detailed the lives and legacies of icons like Winston Churchill and Alan Turing, but the rest of the museums very much told the story of the hundreds of regular people who took up the call to work towards England’s war effort. They worked impeccably long shifts, sometimes focusing for eighteen straight hours on delivering incoming military reports or intercepting Nazi cyphers to be decoded. The Bomber Command Memorial honored the thousands of civilians who helped protect Britain from the falling bombs during the Blitz. On the second night, we were privileged enough to hear the story of the father-in-law of an Ohio State alum, Mr. Handscomb, who was a grade-school boy at the time of the Blitz. His father volunteered as an air raid warden to protect their neighborhood from the bombs, and Mr. Handscomb accompanied him on many of his missions to clear away rubble, put out fires, and help the newly homeless. It was nothing less than an honor to hear such a personal firsthand account from a man whose family sacrificed and experienced so much so that their country might persevere.

A remembrance at the RAF Bomber Command Memorial.

It seemed that the legacy of England’s role in the Second World War is very much present in every facet of life in London. Plaques across the city commemorate the contributions of regular folks, like people who saved St. Paul’s Cathedral from enemy strikes and people who sheltered treasured works of art from the bombings. On the first night, a couple of other girls and I went to a stand-up comedy show in the upper room of a pub, and the comedienne spent several minutes making jokes about the war and how much she disliked Winston Churchill. She criticized her country’s glorification of his leadership as prime minister and argued that he was a misogynist and alcoholic who verbally abused his employees, and she did it all while amassing terrific laughs from the small audience. It was good to hear a dissenting view of Churchill, because he was definitely placed on a pedestal everywhere else in England. He has a statue in Parliament Square, a memorial smack dab in the middle of Westminster Abbey, pubs with his picture on the wall, and remembrances to him all over town.

Mr. Handscomb speaks to our program about his experiences during The Blitz.

Other critical interpretations question the sensationalizing of the Royal Air Force’s role in World War II. They certainly did do their part to protect their own country from airstrikes; however, Britain launched a brutal and heavily destructive bombing campaign against Germany that sent cities like Hamburg and Dresden up in flames and killed thousands more innocent citizens. Even after the violent suffering of its own people, they did not hesitate to inflict the same devastation on another nation. In addition, Great Britain’s imperialist interests were at the heart of their postwar vision, policies that had kept millions of people in Africa and Asia under oppressive rule for centuries.
While it cannot be denied that the people of England played a crucial role in keeping their nation from falling into enemy hands, their unwavering pride in their country’s victory in World War II frequently ignores the pain they helped exact on other regular people who were dehumanized and considered either enemies or subjects. While Mr. Handscomb’s memories were immensely moving, the stories from Bletchley Park were mind-blowing, and the hundreds of remembrances across London all credited average citizens with their nation’s victory, immersing myself in this English fervor for the “People’s War” has really helped me realize that one must examine and interpret all stories when studying history.

Taking a tour at Bletchley Park.

Firsthand account from a former Bletchley Park employee.


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