Our class learned about and discussed multiple aspects of World War Two in seminar all semester, and the term “People’s War” was thrown around a lot in discussing the English experience. The reality of the term “People’s War,” truly did not hit me until I visited London and the Churchill War Rooms. The theme of a “People’s War” in Britain is emphasized throughout the museum. Before visiting London and the War Rooms, I always thought of World War Two as a battle between militaries and leaders, for example, Hitler vs. Churchill, or RAF vs. Luftwaffe. After leaving London, I see how much effort individual people made during the war, especially in England! Getting the support and help of a country is difficult, and it is extremely impressive that Winston Churchill was able to do just this. Each Churchill speech or statement was strategic in that it made the country rally together to fight the Axis powers. In the museum, there was a tablet with around fifty Winston Churchill quotes, broken up by date. The most powerful came in his first speech as prime minister in 1940, when Churchill said, “You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.” Thus Churchill conveyed to his people that the war was not world leader against world leader, or even military against military, but a total war of country against country. This quote left such an impression upon me, I even jotted it down in my cell phone. Seeing London and the War Rooms allowed me to fully comprehend the “People’s War” in England.
By Matthew Bonner
I arrived in London on May 8th, immediately greeted by a refreshing English downpour and a warm fish and chips. Throughout our class discussions and readings over the Spring semester, we focused our analysis on piecing together the historical memories of England, France, Poland, and Germany regarding World War II. The British remember the war as a “people’s war,” where a mass mobilization of British society was required to fight in the total war. Under this national memory, the war impacted and was shaped by every British citizen, but is remembered as a unified effort of the whole British Empire.
As I wandered through the immense labyrinth of underground rooms that make up the Churchill War Rooms, I was searching for evidence of the “people’s war”. The underground bunker was a home to many British officers ranging from secretaries to intelligence officials who worked in top secret on planning the British war effort. One of the biggest contradictions I grappled with throughout the museum was how the war was a “people’s war” when the museum exhibits attribute so much of the success and focus of the British war effort to prime minister Winston Churchill. However, after exploring the exhibits and getting a sense of the greater British experience, it is clear that Churchill serves as a symbol for the “people’s war” interpretation. Churchill was a leader to rally behind during the war for millions of British citizens and “people”, inspiring officers, soldiers, and civilians in the mass mobilization needed for the war. For example, the museum’s Churchill exhibit traced Churchill’s life through his public speeches and private letters across his extensive career, and the emphasis on the will, strength, and unity of the English people needed during the war was evident.
As we made our day trip to Bletchley Park, the headquarters for the Allied decryption efforts, preconceived images came to mind of an expansive mansion where Oxford and Cambridge graduates worked together to piece together vital intelligence for the war. Instead, after touring the site, I was able to grasp the full extent of the multiple huts and buildings on the estate where thousands of men and women worked together in secret. The classified work at Bletchley was hidden from the worker’s families and even other members of the decryption efforts, as warning posters littered the various buildings ominously reading “The Walls Have Ears”. A majority of the thousands of workers at Bletchley were women, initially selected due to demonstrated skill and socioeconomic connections, and later expanding to additional women workers through assessments, such as logic tests in newspapers. Most of the men at the site were hand picked from Cambridge and Oxford. In fact, the Bletchley location is tied to these universities, as the site is equidistant between the two universities for ease of access and transportation. The “people’s war” memory exudes from the campus, as brilliant civilians sacrificed individual pride and worked tirelessly at various compartmentalized stations to decrypt German enigma messages and provide key intelligence to Allied forces regarding German troop movements, planned attacks, and intel on invasions such as D-Day. After the war, the Bletchley workers blended into the common historical memory of the “people’s war”, until 1970 when their work was declassified, and with it another chapter of the “people’s war” revealed and definition of “people” expanded.
Ultimately, the “people’s war” historical memory interpretation inherently asks the question, who were the “people”? After touring the various sites in London and museums, such as the Imperial War Museum, it is obvious that the people included any and everyone, ranging from both women to men from London to the colonies. However, it is remarkable that the definition of “who” the “people” were expanded during the war to include group of peoples ranging from women to homosexuals, who were discriminated against, persecuted, and held in second and third class status in peacetime society. Furthermore, as England and the world remember the immense sacrifices and contributions made by the “people” during the war, these key members of the war effort are often left out of the historical memory. The gap between those who served and those remembered is closing, however it is important to understand the full extent of the “people” that served in England’s “people’s war” when considering the war’s legacy and impact.
I got the chance to tour the Parliament Building while I was in London. As it turns, an Ohio State alumnus works as a security officer and so offered my friends and I the opportunity to see the inside. As I explored Parliament, the grandeur of the art and monuments inside reminded me of the importance of the English form of democracy. Seeing all the paintings, statues, and plaques, I became reminded of the fact that Britain has always been a bastion of parliamentary democracy and that English Common Law was what laid the roots of the American system we abide by today. Such considerations garnered a sort of kinship with the English that I believe is a central aspect of the relationship between our two countries. With close ties like these, I feel as if the fate of the United States’ system of government is partially linked to that of England’s. Even when that system appears to be in crisis, perhaps the memory of what Britain stands for will serve as a rallying point for those reasonable enough to be civil about the UK’s most polarizing dilemma: Brexit.
As I listened to my guide, I concluded the current state of affairs in British Parliament is one wrought with just as much uncertainty as that of the United States. Rifts arise in current parties like UKIP, leading to the creation of new parties that only serve to accentuate the issue. MPs insult and shout at one another. Protests amass in the street daily regarding Brexit in Parliament Square. Amidst it all, Theresa May’s government is struggling to maintain power. As my tour guide said, Brexit has made the position of Prime Minister the most undesirable job in the world. With MPs becoming so angry that they are grabbing the ceremonial mace at the center of the floor and trying to hit one another with it, I understand how difficult it might be to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Just a few blocks from downtown London the street signs read in both English and Bengali. Historically, it is an immigrant community. One building, originally a Protestant church built by French Huguenots in the 1700s, has also been used as both a synagogue and a mosque (The Brick Lane Mosque). The streets themselves are narrow and littered with garbage, and the sidewalks are in disrepair. While the buildings are newer, they are a dim juxtaposition to the rest of London’s prim apartment buildings. Despite this decay, the area is famous for its street art, which is the illegal use of paint on the outside of buildings. While much of the art is incredibly skillful, it is symbolic of weak local rule of law in Whitechapel. Some artists choose to remain anonymous, but each has their own distinct style. The subjects range from pop culture to political commentary to original artistic inspiration. Pieces last anywhere from a few weeks to several years.
This art attracts tourists from all over the world, but the East End also has unique significance in WWII history. This area bore the brunt of the Blitz and endured near-total destruction because of German raids. However, White Chapel has no infrastructural memory for WWII. In fact, this largely Bengali community is undergoing a struggle against gentrification and displacement. It was once an affordable place for immigrant families to start businesses and save enough to eventually move to the suburbs. However, it is slowly being taken over by hip and trendy coffee shops, boutiques, and other outside businesses. Not only is the cost of living on the rise, but the unique blend of culture is being chipped away by commercial business. Companies like Adidas and Gucci now own walls in the area and have created advertisements that mimic the style of street art. The local opposition to this commercialization is apparent: “tourists go home” is written on a nearby wall.
London’s wartime experience is often conveyed as the “People’s War”—the idea that the common man, woman, and child came together to achieve victory both at home and abroad. Perhaps in the 1940s WWII was the “People’s War,” but its modern-day legacy only belongs to some. Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Parliament Square, the National Portrait Gallery, Hyde Park, the Victoria and Albert Museum. World War II memorials are as easy to find in London as tourist attractions and are often incorporated into sidewalks and walls. Westminster Abbey, an active site of worship, houses memorials to the Women’s Voluntary Service, to British and French soldiers, and even contained a U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor. Wartime legacy is casually featured in infrastructure all over the city—a city that withstood the German Blitz for several months. Hidden in posh and historical buildings are memorials, royal decrees, and commissioned works of art that commemorate the valor and loss of World War II. Generally, London and the West End of London are clean and trendy, yet still possess enough historical significance to maintain a powerful tourism industry.
There are many possible reasons why the residents of the East End have never benefited from WWII tourism, unlike the city of London and the West End. The residents of the East End are probably not of the same families that endured the Blitz in the 1940s, so perhaps they do not share that cultural history with the rest of London. Perhaps the city of White Chapel chose not to commemorate such a devastating event when rebuilding. Perhaps in British memory it is only significant that iconic sites—like Westminster Abbey—managed to survive the Blitz. While the Germans valued the East End as a wartime target due to the manufacturing and shipping centers in the area, Britain’s collective memory of WWII fails to dignify the area as a site worth remembering.
As our World War II Study Abroad group explored London, many site visits prompted us to discuss the push and pull between old English customs and newer, modern-day influences. I noticed the juxtapositions in simplicities such as the food, which ranged from Thai and Indian cuisine to full English roasts and high tea, to the museum content, where British imperialism’s impact resonated through almost every piece of the nation’s cultural history. Throughout our studies to prepare for this trip, we discussed how the People’s War affected the British citizenry and the English mentality. Practically every site we visited explored this sense of British perseverance reminiscent of the wartime mindset; however, the persistence of the citizenry seemed inextricably entwined with the troubling sources of the new. I was surprised to see the prominence of Churchill’s imperialistic mindset and be reminded repeatedly that colonialism’s effects are still distinctly present in English society today.
The Churchill Museum presented a comprehensive view of the focus of British political influence outside of the war effort. As an individual, Churchill not only gave the British people someone to believe in and look towards for leadership; he kept a nation that was fading in their influence relevant in the global sphere. But the museum went beyond these leadership qualities and acknowledged his influence outside the war and his policy programs in England, showing that Churchill impacted the Middle East. An entire room in the museum explored Churchill’s unwavering commitment to expanding the British Empire. Among all of his accomplishments during WWII, this room alluded to the negative consequences of Churchill’s decision making. His failure to grant Indian independence and view of colonial people as inferior was a sharp contrast to his commitment to social welfare and the working class of English society.
The Imperial War Museum addressed the impact of British colonialism from the wartime era. The current rotating exhibit explored modern terrorism in the UK and we had the opportunity to speak with survivors of terrorist attacks, hospital workers, and first responders in a roundtable discussion. At first thought English imperialism may seem contained in earlier centuries, strictly within the stolen artifacts of the British Museum and the V&A; however, the Churchill War Rooms and IWM made the effects of the expansive British Empire in the modern era unavoidably apparent. Visiting these museums allows one to trace actions from decades ago to reactions that are ongoing today.
Each site visit presented Churchill’s maintenance Britain’s relevance as a Western world power and the persistence of the British people throughout the war as an important takeaway, but when one visits the sources first-hand, the lasting effects of Britain’s troubling past and commitment to colonialism are increasingly interwoven into the historical narrative. Churchill’s influence not only emerged through his special relationship with Roosevelt and presence in the “Big Three,” but in his dedication to expanding the British Empire and reluctance to grant independence to occupied nations. While colonialism at first thought may not directly connect to World War II, it was a clear stain on every site and museum we visited. Seeing the sites first hand allowed me to create a more comprehensive
On my first night in London, I found myself entering an attic in Camden, The Camden Comedy Club, and laughed as a comedian made many jokes and struggled to participate as she referenced politics I didn’t understand. By entering a new nation one enters a knew political and social climate. Suddenly, jokes were centered around the Royal Wedding and Brexit rather than Donald Trump and the Mexican border. The Royal Wedding was a massive buzz everywhere from Trafalgar Square to Kensington. Brexit was whispered around with weighted connotations about future implications for the British people. And yet, what I found most interesting was that these buzz words fluttered across the City of London in a similar manner as any breaking news story would around New York City. It was dealt with in posters, with humor, and with a marked desire for commercial gain. The Royal Wedding is a national celebration of an old English tradition of monarchy as well as capitalism. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s faces were plastered all over shiny mugs and magnets ready to be sold at a kiosk anywhere and everywhere. And while Brexit has serious implications as heavy as any deal Donald Trump is currently pulling out of in the United States, the British people, in their classic British manner reminiscent of Hitler jokes during the Blitz, cope through laughter.
As I watched political history unfold and new skyscrapers rise in London, I could not help but notice a simple fact. The British are not yet over World War II. A few months ago I asked an Englishman named Christopher if I could use the name Chris, and his knee jerk response was “sure sure, anything but Adolf, right?”. It seems that thousands of air raids cannot so easily be forgotten. While I expected to experience World War II memorabilia during our time at the Churchill War Rooms or Bletchley Park, I was not expecting to experience it in everything I did during my free time. Our comedian began making jokes about Winston Churchill and his handling of Dunkirk within twenty minutes of her set. From this moment on I knew, the Second World War was still fresh in English memory. Everywhere from the Tate museum to St. Pauls’ cathedral, plaques were posted commemorating fallen soldiers, and art was on display to celebrate the British strength in World War II. It seems indisputable to assume that, whatever the current political and social climate in the United Kingdom may be, modern London is a direct product of Second World War sufferings and efforts. If a comedian can connect Churchill to a recounting of her failed blind date, then it can transcend into the functioning of modern society from Parliament down to the individual Englishman.
As soon as I stepped off the plane in London, I could feel the change in the atmosphere. Everyone was in a hurry everywhere they went. Stand on the right if you’re not one of the people running up the escalator because stairs that do all of the work for you just aren’t fast enough. It was so easy to be swept up into the Londoner mentality – to rush and rush and rush. Over the course of five days I saw Trafalgar Square, St. Paul’s Cathedral (Three times. By the third time I saw it, I finally had the lay of the city), the Imperial War Museum, the HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge, Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, St. James Park, the Globe Theater, Westminster Abbey, the cavalry guard, Big Ben, Parliament, the Churchill War Rooms, Bletchley Park, rode the London Eye, finally figured out the Tube, and walked (rather quickly) through miles and miles of London. I’m getting exhausted all over again just reading that list.
It was quite easy to get lost in the city – especially since the only cell service I had in the city was the occasional free wifi from Starbucks. I wanted to get lost, though. I wanted to get lost in the history of the city. Instead of rushing from tourist trap to tourist trap, I wanted to take in the city (which is hard to do while sprinting across the city). One of my favorite moments in London was laying in the grass, looking up at St. Paul’s Cathedral. This beautiful cathedral was rebuilt nearly 400 years ago and is the one that stands today, but the original cathedral was built in 7th century. I was absolutely in awe of the history at which I was looking. St. Paul’s Cathedral was untouched by the bombs that rained down on London throughout World War II. As I laid in the grass, I tried to imagine looking up at this building, still standing, as smoke billowed from the rubble of buildings throughout the city. It was difficult to imagine since now the city is filled with modern, glass skyscrapers, and there were no clouds in sight – nothing reminiscent of the smoke that would have filled the city throughout the war (except maybe the cigarette smoke from Londoners walking by).
There’s so much history throughout London, it’s easy to miss if you’re always hurrying to the next destination. After touring the Tower of London (which was PACKED with tourists and an hour long line to see the crown jewels), Taylor and I decided to look in an old, nearby church. There were only a couple other people touring the church, which was really quite surprising since we were so close to the Tower of London and since this happened to be the oldest church in London. We made our way to the basement where we saw the original tiled floor – built by the Romans in the 2nd century! A little further down the hallway, there was a memorial to William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, who had been baptized in this church. Then in a small nook, there was a memorial to the members of the congregation who had been killed during World War II. In the middle of this ancient church was a somber reminder of how much was lost during the war. Buildings could be rebuilt, redesigned, or refurbished. That’s evident by the hundreds of new buildings surrounding the ancient landmarks of the city. These men were lost forever. This was also the first time I’d seen any memorial in London that listed the actual names of British soldiers that died during the war – in the basement of an old church of all places. I’m so glad Taylor and I wandered in off the street and took a little time out of a hectic day to discover such rich history.
Before traveling to London, Dave, Kelsey and I took a short two day trip to Dublin Ireland to soak up the Irish culture. Dublin was much smaller than I thought it would be but it was still a pretty cool place with plenty of things to see. During our second day there we toured the Jameson Distillery and then the Guinness Storehouse where we learned to pour the perfect pint. In all Ireland was an awesome place, however, I hope to see more of the countryside next time because I hear it is absolutely beautiful.
We flew into England via the Luton airport which we soon discovered was a considerable ways outside the city. We were able to get a bus for relatively cheap and so were off on our London adventure. This was not my first time in London as I had stayed here for two weeks about two years ago with the London Honors program. Regardless it felt good to be back and I was excited to get exploring more of the city.
Dave, Kelsey and I were surprised to find that we were the first students to arrive at the hotel. We checked into our rooms and freshened up before heading out. We didn’t have tube passes yet so we decided to just pick a direction and start walking. We saw a lot that day including Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace. We met up with the rest of the group later on and got our tube passes and London passes. We decided that we would get dinner but our group was far too big to be accommodated at almost any of the pubs and restaurants. Jenna, Hannah, Kelsey and myself decided to split off and we had dinner at the TCR Bar which was a pretty cool place. We were joined later by Dave for some drinks.
The next day was when we got started on the WWII part of the trip which is what I was most excited for. We visited the Churchill War Museum which is inside the bunker that he commanded from during the Battle of Britain. It was cool to see how Churchill and his people lives and worked during the battle. There was also a pretty extensive museum that chronicled his life all the way to his death with a very moving video of his funeral profession. After the museum me and some of the group went around to the typical tourists spots such as Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral. On our way home we crossed the millennial bridge which I had never done. I was on the lookout the whole time for death eaters. Luckily none appeared.
The following day we took a train out to Bletchley Park and visited the site where they cracked the enigma code and worked around the clock to decipher German and Japanese intelligence during the war. We took a leisurely tour through the grounds and it was hard for me to imagine over 8,000 people living and working there. The museum was cool to me because it included a small section on some of the double cross agents such as TATE and GARBO that I did my research paper on.
Saturday was a very busy day for me and some of my friends. The group first visited the HMS Belfast which I thought was one of the best things we did in London. I love touring large military ships and the Belfast did not disappoint. I thoroughly enjoyed winding my way through the boiler and engine rooms especially. I was disappointed that they did not have more of the ship available to look around but it was still a great experience none the less. We had spent the previous night planning our day so after the Belfast we quickly boarded a ferry and traveled to Greenwich to see the prime meridian. After thy we ferried back to the heart of London and traveled around seeing the Sherlock Holmes museum on Baker St, the Marble Arch and many other sites. It was a fun but tiring day and we took it easy that night by just walking around Piccadilly Circus and soaking in the culture and nightlife.
After so many exciting days in London a lot of us were pretty beat. Regardless Dave and I decided we wanted to see a football stadium. If it had been in the cards I would have liked to have visited Old Trafford in Manchester. Seeing as that was a no go we decided to see Chelsea and Arsenal both were on the London pass but Chelsea was renovating their field so we decided to stick with just Arsenal. The tour was fantastic and allowed is to see the Directors box and the Diamond box. It even included a tour of the dressing rooms and press rooms. The coolest part was getting to go through the tunnel and out to the pitch. Sitting in the home dugout and imagining the roar of tens of thousands of fans is a pretty crazy experience. After that our day was pretty much done. I called my mom and wished her a happy Mother’s Day and we spent the rest of the day relaxing walking around and working on our blog posts.
London was cool but I felt that I had seen and done most of what there is in London before. As I write this I am eagerly anticipating getting to mainland Europe. Normandy is what I expect to be the most exciting part of the trip for me. As we sail into Normandy I will prepare to storm the beaches with the rest of my group. It would be amazing if we could land on the beaches in Higgins boats but I don’t think that is very plausible. Regardless I am excited to start the next leg of our adventure!
Cheerio from London, UK! (I specifically mentioned that London is in the UK because every time I hear “UK,” I have to double check that someone is not saying “you, Kay”). This is not the only time I’ve had to pause and replay things that people have said around me. London is truly an international city; many of the conversations I have overheard have not been conducted in English. While I’ve been taught that America is a “melting pot,” I have not been exposed to this aspect at all. Having grown up in suburban Medina, Ohio, a place with little diversity, there were few chances to observe and experience other cultures. My time at Ohio State has provided me with more opportunities to learn about the way people other than myself live. Furthermore, the opportunity to participate in the History of WWII Study Abroad program is already contributing to my understanding of the world, and we are still in our first city! I take advantage of every opportunity to learn more about the things around me and one of my favorite ways to accomplish this goal is by speaking to everyone that I meet.
I went alone to breakfast today and one of the staff members whom I had interacted with during previous breakfast meals came over and asked to sit down. I love getting to know people and was just relaxing, enjoying coffee and being in London so I said “of course.” The first thing he asked is if I was from Russia. When I said no, he then guessed the Ukraine and Sweden. He wanted a hint and I told him that he was choosing countries in the wrong hemisphere; he then quickly guessed the United States. Later today on the tube (London’s underground, the subway system), the man across from me asked where I was from. After he guessed France and Russia, I told him I was from America. He responded with “Americans are all smiley and happy, you’re all so naïve.” An older British woman that I met when we trekked out to Bletchley Park noted that all of the Americans that she’s met have been cheery and pleasant. Finally, in the water closet last night, a girl my age was chatting with me and commented on my accent. She questioned its origin and when she heard that I was American, she wanted to know if I was in London for a study-abroad program. Clearly I must have looked out of place… I told her that I was studying World War II here and she said “yeah we’re all about WWII in London” then laughed and said “just kidding, we’re totally over it. Cheers!”
It is blatantly obvious that I am an American despite my efforts to appear as if I know what is going on. I always look left when crossing the street, mind the gap in the underground, and stand on the right side of the escalators. Yet traveling in a group of eight to a restaurant, not pronouncing my meal correctly, and trying to split the bill were clear giveaways. There are many cultural aspects that differ from those that I’ve become accustomed to. London is also such a diverse place, there is no one culture in this city. In five days, I had Greek food, walked through Chinatown, had traditional British fish and chips (three times…) and enjoyed Italian coffee. I visited St. Paul’s Cathedral, where a church has stood since 604, visited the Tower of London that was built in 1066, and then saw buildings that were still being constructed today. The contrast of old and new in London is shocking and alluring. Every corner that I turn is surprising, the clash between traditional and modern here has been so exciting for me to observe. If London has been this intriguing, I am thrilled to continue exploring the world with a group of my closest friends.
Greetings from London, United Kingdom! It is a beautiful city, with rich World War II history. I have never been overseas before; it is an honor to be on this trip. It is great to see the places that we discussed in class. This makes the war more real for me. I am from a small town, and we are not close to any well-known historical monuments. It has always been a dream to travel to London and experience World War II through new and different perspectives.
The first stop for this trip was the Churchill War Museum, and I learned more about his life, especially his early life. I enjoyed how the museum set-up. There were many visuals in the museum, including a touch screen that had different events that a student could pick and get a brief history of Churchill in one place. I was most interested in his early life, because it showed how political views changed over the years. Churchill had many domestic programs that ran against his own political party. Americans usually see only his role in World War II.
We also went to the HMS Belfast, which was a British war ship. This ship played an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic. HMS Belfast’s technology used in the 1940s affected the allies victory and made the difference between Germany and the United Kingdom. The men on this ship had to deal with many different weather patterns, which made traveling even more difficult.
My ability to come over to Europe has opened up my eyes to different culture and this is the first country out of three. I like that we visit the United Kingdom first because their language is English. I am excited about learning about France and German cultures, too. I am excited about writing the French and German blogs.
Greetings from London, England! As soon as I got off the plane at London Heathrow Airport, I caught myself smiling whenever I heard someone with a British accent. I couldn’t believe I was actually in London. I learned about the World War II study-abroad program my sophomore year at Ohio State. After I declared my major in history I couldn’t believe there was a program available that would accommodate all of my interests. It’s astounding to me that a trip like this is possible, and I am so grateful that I have been chosen to embark on this adventure with my two incredible professors and 13 talented colleagues.
So, months after completing grueling book reports and an incredibly long and rewarding thirty-page paper, I find myself in the beautiful city of London, and British accents aren’t as dominant as I expected. London is truly a transnational city. From navigating my way through the tube to strolling down Piccadilly Circus, I’ve heard a variety of different languages and rarely hear English being spoken. It’s remarkable to be in a city where so many different cultures and people are present. There’s always so much to see, do and learn. Although our primary focus here in London is to study World War II, which we’ve done extensively through the Churchill War Rooms, Bletchley Park, and the HMS Belfast, I find myself learning more about culture than I ever planned to. After all we’re in England and that’s supposed to be similar to America…right?
I could not have been more wrong. Many of the people here may speak English, and a variety of other languages as I’ve mentioned before, but London is very much a European city with a completely different vibe, culture, and set of customs than what my colleagues and I are used to. We’re lucky that London is our first stop, since after all there isn’t much of a language barrier, allowing us to learn to navigate the fast-paced city life. Yet we’re still American and frustratingly enough, it is quite noticeable that we are foreigners, since we’ve been asked several times if we are. How do we give ourselves away? In the beginning, we stood on the wrong side of the escalator in the tube, we always seemed to be in the way. Splitting our checks when we went out to eat was impossible, and we didn’t understand why we had to pay to use public restrooms. Yet I think we’re getting the hang of it. Now when I see someone standing on the left side of the escalator, I casually pull them to the right. I know to “mind the gap” whenever I get off of a train. And I’ve learned to keep up in the busy city, always remembering that people drive on the left and that crossing the street successfully is a great accomplishment.
I’ve come to understand the importance of studying abroad just in the first five days of living in a foreign city and cannot wait to visit the three remaining places we have on our agenda. There is nothing more rewarding than learning the customs and practices of another culture. Traveling and interacting with a variety of people from across the world has truly enabled me to see the world through a different perspective.
Until four days ago, I had never been to London. What I knew about it came from movies, textbooks, and American stereotypes of plucky/prim/proper Brits. I mention this as a sort of disclaimer. I’ve only been here a few days, so there’s a distinct possibility that my impression of how London remembers WWII is superficial. I also haven’t talked to any actual Londoners about the War, so my conclusions come more from what I’ve seen of the city than anything else. Anyway, here it is.
From what I can tell, London and its people wear their battle scars proudly. Between incessant German bombing, rationing, and loss of life in combat, Londoners collectively endured years of psychological and physical terror. I’m sure a lesser group of people would rather forget the trauma of years of war and move on with life. But I don’t think London wants to forget. Everywhere you look, there’s something to memorialize the war. On Whitehall, near Parliament, there is a statue of Bernard Montgomery, the famed British Marshall and second-in-command to Eisenhower. Just up the road from Monty is a sculpture of William Slim, KG, GCB, GCMG, GCVO, GBE, DSO, MC, KStJ (his full honors are just too great not to include), who led British Commonwealth troops against the Japanese in the China-Burma-India campaign. And across the street from Slim is a monument to the women who served in WWII.
But wait, there’s more! London houses the Imperial War Museum (which is, quite upsettingly, closed until July) AND a bunch of its subsidiaries, including the Churchill War Rooms and the HMS Belfast, which all keep the experience of fighting the War alive. And, of course, there’s my favorite memorial of all: the Royal Air Force Chapel in Westminster Abbey. Even in an ancient church that, for all intents and purposes, has nothing to do with the War, there’s a gigantic stained glass window commemorating the heroics of RAF pilots (as well as a bit of residual bomb damage).
So why all the WWII nostalgia? From an American perspective, this idea of dwelling on the past doesn’t make much sense. But of course we’d think that way. With the exception of Pearl Harbor, the US doesn’t really have any noticeable scars from World War II. I’m talking physical scars here: damage to buildings, structures that used to be there and no longer are, that sort of thing. We just didn’t go through the destruction that our friends in the UK did, and we certainly didn’t have to rebuild our country like they did. We also avoided a lot of the hardship that Londoners did. Sure, we had rationing just like everyone else. But by the end of the War, our economy was booming, and Americans were living in relative comfort. Meanwhile, an ocean away, Londoners came out of the war with an utterly exhausted economy and a population that hadn’t seen any sort of basic comfort in years. London was destitute, and I think that’s hard for a lot of Americans (including me) to picture.
People don’t forget experiences like that easily. Before the US entered the War, Brits had been facing the Nazis on the Western Front on their own. By the War’s end, London had seen bombing, starvation, death, and human suffering on a scale that Americans just hadn’t. But in spite of it all, they hung on. They stuck it out until the very end. And that’s got to be a massive source of pride for them. For a while, they were the sole defenders of democracy, and even if it meant forgoing food and burrowing underground for a while, by God, they were going to defend it if it was the last thing they ever did.
So even in this metropolitan, multicultural, and modern city, you still see tons of little memorials to the War. And I love that. I love that these people (it seems, anyway) actively remember their past, and that it still influences the way they think and feel. Londoners certainly don’t spend all their time reminiscing about the glory days of the War, but in their own reserved way, they’re keeping it alive. And in a world still full of bigots and intolerant people, I don’t think it hurts to have a few people around who remember their fight against hate and tyranny. After all, remembering is the only way to keep it from happening again.
London is a fantastic city. It is incredibly rich in history, architecture, and—well—people. This is my first time “over the pond,” as the locals say, and I am quite impressed. My only impressions of London come from the American media and British TV shows such as Dr. Who and Downton Abbey. The media get it right about half the time. For example, the British do speak in strange accents to our American ears, and sometimes I wonder if we truly are speaking the same language. There have been many occasions on my short trip here where I wasn’t exactly too sure what was being said to me. Even when I did understand what was being said little idiosyncrasies are readily apparent. However, what surprised me the most was how many French speakers I came across as I strolled through London; people from all parts of the globe find their way to London. It truly is an international city.
London is also a very clean city. Even the subway areas were very clean. There is definitely a different way of doing things here, but it is hard to put your finger on exactly how to describe it. Restaurants often close between lunch and dinner. Many establishments close by 11 at night, but London doesn’t ever seem to sleep. Tourists and Londoners can be found packing in the local McDonald and Burger King after a night of theater in the West End or a evening out a the pub. No doubt, being confined to the more touristy areas of London has clouded my opinion.
The famous landmarks such as Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the Tower Bridge are even more magnificent in person than they are in pictures and TV. What surprised me the most is the history that lurks around every corner. Monuments and statues seem to grow out of the city for every significant event of the British Empire. Newer buildings tower over the old, but not so much in a way that detracts the eye from the greater beauty of the city. I imagine, or perhaps I just hope, this might be a similar experience to one a tourist would have 1000 years from now in New York or Washington, D.C.
Perhaps, its the common history shared between our two nations, but I can’t help but shake the feeling, as foreign as London is, that it feels a bit like coming home.
The first place we visited as a group was the Churchill War Rooms near Westminster Abbey and Parliament. The Cabinet War Rooms were in a reinforced steel and concrete bunker that Churchill and his staff used to run the war. I was lucky enough to have visited the rooms last summer when I came to the Great Britain on a family vacation. However, I had not had the opportunity to take several World War II classes before visiting. As such, this visit possessed a poignancy my last visit did not. This time, I had studied the war and its difficulties in depth, and so it was immensely humbling to visit the small rooms in which the war was organized.
The men and women there worked without sunshine in secret, congested quarters doing what needed to be done. Sometimes, when I talk about the twentieth century–and especially World War II–I romanticize it; I fall for the glamour, patriotic declarations, and excitement in the old black-and-white films I love to watch. By visiting one of the places where they worked and learning, for example, about the low ceilings, limited protection, and lack of sunshine in the bunker, I appreciate Churchill and his staff’s endurance and determination even more.
I have been spending most of my time simply walking around London; as I have walked, I have come across monuments commemorating the war and the important contributors. The public and consistent acknowledgement of World War II struck me. In the United States, it frequently seems as though Americans do not possess a shared public consciousness about World War II and its costs, effects, and significance. The war is simply an event that happened in the past that affected our grandparents and their families and is commemorated in a single monument in Washington D.C. As we walked down the London sidewalks, we saw statues praising General Slim and General Montgomery and memorials saluting the women in World War II. In London, the war seems much more present in the national memory. Bombs fell on London itself and destroyed thousands of homes and locations representing thousands of years of British history.
However, the most memorable moment was when I walked into the back of Henry VII’s Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey. Westminster Abbey is a fantastically large and detailed cathedral, and the chapel was once considered to be one of the great wonders of the world. In the back of the chapel is a series of stained glass windows honoring the men of the Royal Air Force who served during the Battle of Britain. It seemed odd to me to place stained glass windows honoring World War II in a medieval chapel, but it highlighted for me the war’s significance in London as a destructive and powerful force that has left a lasting impact on the city and its future history.
I am writing this while traveling from Portsmouth towards Bayeux on a ferry. The English Channel is an amazing thing, and it has acted as an important defensive mechanism for years. William the Conqueror in 1066 was the last person to successfully cross and invade the Isle of Britain. This was also critical in the Second World War, as Hitler’s Germany was unable to control the entirety of Europe, and Britain once served as a rallying point for Allied forces, and eventually the starting point for the D-Day operation. I am currently taking a similar approach to France, where my next adventure will begin in Normandy and continue to Paris.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, I need to relate to you the rest of my experience in London. What an incredible city. Words do not exist that can express the beauty, presence, and history of this place. I was a busy bee while absent from this blog, and I was fortunate enough to visit various historic and national landmarks within London. These included Bletchley Park, home to the code-breaking operation of the Allied forces that helped to break the Enigma code and contribute to a multitude of dramatic victories that helped turn the tide of war. We also visited the National Gallery where I saw paintings by Rousseau, Degas, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Monet, Manet, and so many more. The creative ability astounds me, as I have not concept of the ability to produce such beautiful work. The power and splendor of these works left me speechless.
I also spent a significant amount of time simply walking and exploring London, and Vince and I got very good at navigating without maps. It was great to feel like I was staring to be comfortable with the underground and the general directions within London. While exploring I visited a monument created by Christopher Wren to commemorate the Great Fire of London. This tall monument had over 300 steps, and while it was a strenuous trip up, the view of London was incredible. I also was able to visit the British Museum, a collection of artifacts and items across many centuries and countries that have been a part or influenced the British. The museum held the Rosetta stone and other ancient Egyptian sculptures, tracked the evolution of watches and money, held Greek and Roman sculpture, pottery, and daily items. The age and significance of these items are incredibly powerful, and the museum itself was a strong symbol of imperialism, as the British travelled across the world.
My favorite portion of the trip thus far is Westminster Abbey. Solemn and beautiful, the tombs and monuments to important persons were extraordinary. I stood in front of Newton, Chaucer, Austen, Livingstone, and so many more great persons. While there I took a few moments to reflect on the Abbey, and my experience in London. I thought about the representation of so much power, influence, intelligence, and wealth. I thought about what I wanted to be, what I wanted to accomplish in my life, ad what I wanted to be represented as. While I still don’t know the exact path I wish to take in life, I do know that I want to truly impact how people think or act. That does not necessarily equate to fame or fortune, but I hope to have an impact on lives.
London has already beneficially affected my life, as I have gained new perspective, a greater appreciation for other cultures, and most importantly a love for adventure and new experiences. I know that I want to return to London, and will be exploring my options to study in England for my future education. I am saddened to be departing, yet excited for the next portion of my journey. I hope to be able to continue to feel the same for each part of the trip, and I am ecstatic to visit the beaches of Normandy next. Until next time, or as I will be saying soon, au revoir!