The greatest outburst of joy ever – for some

Cheers and tears: Four million families in Britain were left with bomb-damaged houses.

Is history best told through human stories? Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of VE Day, and the eyewitness accounts of those who were there vividly evoke its mixture of joy and sadness.

“There was an atmosphere of excitement from early dawn,” jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton recalled. By lunchtime, there were 100,000 people outside Buckingham Palace.

“It wasn’t long before I had a band. A man appeared with a trombone, someone else turned up with a big drum.” He ended up in a handcart – “pushed at terrifying speed down The Mall, with the rest of the band puffing along behind”.

All across Britain, the Victory in Europe Day celebrations went on late into the night. After six years of war, people had earned them.

Pat Hazlehurst, whose husband had been killed in 1944, wrote in her diary: “I was tied to the office all day and then I went home and put my head under a pillow. There was nothing to celebrate.”

For housewife Nella Long, there was a sense of anti-climax. “I feel as if I’d sat through a long, tedious play,” she wrote, “only living for the finale, longing for the time I could breathe sweet air, go home […] and as if, instead, as each player had left the stage, they had disappeared and the lights gradually dimmed, ’til the last performer had said, ‘That’s all – you can go home now.’ ”

But teacher Wynne Lewis was less equivocal: it was “that rapturous day of brilliant sunshine and peaceful blue sky towards which we had groped through six years of terrifying black-out!”

Is history best told through human stories?

Personal details

Some say that it is only by reading about individuals that we can get a real sense of a historical event. It is easy to forget that people who lived a long time ago were basically the same as us.

Others argue that though personal stories give colour to events, we need to see the bigger picture. It is not one person’s experience of a battle that matters, but the decisions that led to it and the factors that determined its outcome.

You Decide

  1. What has been the most memorable historical event in your life?

Activities

  1. Design a poster to put in your window celebrating VE Day.

Some People Say...

“The problems of victory are more agreeable than those of defeat, but they are no less difficult.”

Winston Churchill (1874-1965), British politician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
VE Day did not bring an end to suffering for those who had survived the war. In France, thousands of people faced attacks for collaborating with the Nazis. In Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, ethnic Germans were driven out of their homes. Many Russian soldiers who had been prisoners of war were shot or imprisoned for failing their country. Thousands of Germans were reduced to such despair that they committed suicide.
What do we not know?
How much people already knew about the extreme cruelty and violence in concentration camps before Germany’s defeat exposed them. Christabel Bielenberg, an Englishwoman who spent the war in Germany, and whose husband belonged to the anti-Hitler resistance, said that they suspected the Jews were mistreated in the camps, but had no idea of the Holocaust. But some historians argue that the Allies knew well enough what was going on, and should have focused on stopping it.

Word Watch

The Mall
A road running from Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square. It became the most fashionable place in London when it was first laid out in 1660.
Finale
An Italian word meaning “the end”, usually applied to a play, opera, or piece of music.
Equivocal
Uncertain or ambiguous. It comes from the Latin words “aequus” (equal) and “vocare” (to call).

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