This week’s A Point of View on BBC Radio 4 The Horror of War by Renaissance historian Lisa Jardine was truly excellent and well worth ten minutes of your time. From the starting point of having visited a war exhibition she discussed how museums sometimes/often sanitize war when presenting it attractively pre-packaged for the viewing public. Turning to the anything but attractive reality of war she ended her short piece with a very personal anecdote from the bringing up of her own children. She told how her five-year-old son came home from primary school wishing to be bought a khaki shirt. It transpired that a group of kids in his class had started to play war games, re-enacting the Second World War. I was slightly surprised that the initiator or this activity was a recently arrived German boy because one of the things that struck me when I moved to Germany more than thirty years ago is that German children, unlike myself and my friends in my childhood, don’t play war games; a legacy of the German guilt for the Second World War and everything that happened in Germany during the Nazi period. In fact many of my German friends who had spent time in Britain told me how shocked they had been by the war stories in English children’s comics. How Lisa dealt with her own qualms about her son’s wish to play war games I will leave you to find out for yourselves, I want to talk about my own childhood, the war games I played and how it led to me becoming a historian.
I grew up I the 1950s in the shadow of the Second World War; although I don’t remember it the bottled milk on which I was fed was still rationed. From about the age of four to about the age of eleven me and my best friend Pete (and yes grammar fascists I know that is grammatically wrong!) played war games; it was one of our principle activities.
We were Royal Marine Commandoes parachuting behind enemy lines in France to rescue some imagined imprisoned spy, we were Viking warriors slashing and pillaging our way through some imagined coastal settlement or sailing the high seas in our dragon boat, we were Roman legionaries battling the wild Pictish hoards to regain the Eagle of the Ninth (slightly ironic as my father was a lowland Scot!), we were members of the French Foreign Legion besieged by marauding Arabs, you name it if there was a war in history we fought in it.
We had a large storage cupboard, without doors in a loft above a stables on whose top shelf we sat back to back whilst flying our Lancaster bomber; Pete was the pilot and I was by turns the tail-gunner and the bomb aimer. We had an old coalbunker in the yard that was by turns our tank or Panzerkampfwagen (we knew all the right terminology), or our submarine. I had a real periscope that I had built myself with the help of my mother. We were always in the workshop building the accoutrements of war. We carved swords out of fence palings and made shields of every imaginable shape and form out of plywood. We built wooden Sten submachine guns and Bren light machine guns. We fashioned bows and arrows out of hazel wood saplings and constructed lethal crossbows. When we played inside we glued together vast fleets of warships and airplanes, as well as squadrons of tanks from Airfix plastic kits.
A large part of our lives was devoted to the pursuit of war but it wasn’t just practical, there was a strong and surprisingly deep theoretical side to our endeavours. We wished our war games to be as authentic as possible and so we devoted a large part of our time to studying war history. Whilst still at primary school I could detail every model of tank (Panzerkampfwagen) produced in Germany during the 1930s and 40s, including who had designed them, which company had built them etc. etc. I knew the ranks of all the members of a Roman legion, how many men constituted a cohort, a legion, where which legions were deployed and so on, and so on. Aided by my historian father, I had books on such things as Lancelot de Mole’s tank and the construction of Samurai armour. I was a war history junkie, but more importantly I was a practicing historian. I served my first apprenticeship as a historian whilst still at primary school learning, in detail, about all of the ways humanity had dreamt up to kill itself off.
By the time I was fifteen I had become the totally convinced pacifist I remain today but my passion for history had grown and would soon turn first to the history of mathematics and then later to the more general history of science but that passion has its roots very firmly in those childhood years where, in my imagination, I slaughtered thousands and, it should be pointed out, died a thousand spectacular deaths. Being able to act out an Oscar worthy death was an essential part of our war games.
I never had children and being old, set in my ways as a single and, as my contribution to contraception, sterilised I never will have, so I can’t say how I would react to a child of mine wishing to play war games. I can only wish that my reaction would have been as wonderful as that of Lisa Jardine.