Personal history programmes involving celebs work surprisingly well: I see that Channel 4 have got a series coming up in which four actors will be looking into their grandparents’ wartime experiences. This one made some very important points about how the focus on the Western European theatre of the Second World War means that the contributions of those who served on other fronts, and in different ways, tends to be overlooked. Gary Lineker’s got rather annoying in recent years, but he did a great job here, examining his maternal grandad’s service in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the brutal Italian campaign of 1943-45, and hearing first-hand about the fighting from both surviving veterans and local people.
The real stars of the show were the veterans, the youngest now well into their 90s. One of them, William Earl, is 104 … and took care to inform Gary that he’s been supporting Arsenal for 95 years. Just an ordinary man, who got caught up in extraordinary circumstances – just like Gary’s grandad, Stanley Abbs, a grocer’s assistant with no medical or military experience, who was assigned to the medical corps and was amongst the first British troops to arrive in Italy.
Like a lot of us, Gary grew up with much-loved grandfathers and great-uncles who never spoke about their wartime experiences, and he was actually reduced to tears by accounts, mostly from regimental diaries, of the fighting and just how horrific it was. And, as he said throughout the programme, so little attention is paid to the Italian campaign. Veterans wryly refer to themselves as “the D-Day Dodgers”, because they feel that that’s how they were seen.
It’s not just those who served in Italy: it’s those who served everywhere else as well. We’re always reminded that it’s the anniversary of VE Day, but rarely that it’s the anniversary of VJ Day. And we hear next to nothing about those who were involved in the Balkans, or on the Arctic convoys. It’s very important to remember that the Second World War wasn’t just about Western Europe and North Africa, and it’s shameful that these brave men have been made to feel that their contribution, and that of their many comrades who lost their lives, has been overlooked.
And, again, it’s important to remember the contribution of those who, like Gary’s grandad, weren’t directly involved in the fighting. As was pointed out, members of the medical corps had to go out under fire without even any weapons to try to defend themselves, and make horrifically difficult decisions, out there on the battlefield, about who to treat and who they were just going to have to leave. So many people, in so many places, played a vital part in winning the war, and every single one of them deserves to have their contribution remembered. This very moving programme made that point extremely well.
I did see one review which said that, whilst this was a very well-made and well-meaning programme, it might have been an idea to have done something similar with a presenter more likely to appeal to people in their teens and twenties, who are less likely to be familiar with the sacrifices made by those who served in the war. That made me feel extremely old, and it wasn’t very flattering to poor Gary either, but it was an interesting point. The programme wouldn’t have worked as well without Gary’s memories of his relationship with his grandad, and a lot of younger celebs aren’t going to have those memories of that generation, but plenty of veterans lived on in the 21st century, and, of course, some of them are still with us now. But it seemed a bit unfair to criticise the programme because its presenter wasn’t a teenybopper icon. And it made me feel really ancient!
I think that what Gary was hoping for was to shine the spotlight on the “D-Day Dodgers” and everything they went through in Italy, and hopefully he’s done that. There’ve been a lot of Second World War programmes this year, and there are more to come, but, with Dresden declaring a “Nazi emergency” earlier this month and some rather unpleasant scenes involving the Polish far right last week, they’re very much needed.