Today I was giving a tour of Chartwell House to two nice folk from Colorado, USA. Chartwell House was the home of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and is full of his old belongings from his radio to his cigars.
Whilst we were busy enjoying the magnificent house, we came across a room-guide upstairs in the study room where Churchill used to work. It is a magnificent old room with at least elements that are getting on for 500 years old.
We had the most entertaining and informative, hopefully mutually so, conversation and debate about WW2 politics and how it is funny how things work out as they do. I mentioned the rather politically incorrect view that I see the French General De Gaulle as something of a coward for fleeing France in comparison to other elements of the French government who decided to stay and make the best of a bad situation. As the war turned out the way it did, these politicians are largely seen as collaborators but I still see fleeing abroad as the easy route that anyone could have taken.
I was happy for the historian I was speaking to, to wholeheartedly agree with me and how he occassionally has had to speak up for seemingly blatantly wrong tours being given by French teachers to their students who are almost conditioned to study their history in a certain way.
He then mentioned the date, 3rd September. My guests and I looked at each other… of course it was the day that the U.K. had declared war on Germany and thus completed the act that we had tried so hard to avoid and yet had been thrust onto the world by a handful of individuals, most notably Herr Hitler.
We pondered all of this for a while, it somehow making a splendid trip to a splendid house, all the more memorable and our tour continued until towards the end of a house we met a splendid lady who I have only spoken to in passing before.
Today she was in the kitchen and informing all and sundry of how many of the gadgets in the room used to work and just how different the time was back then. Of how the slightest luxory was a treat beyond words and how she was tasked with washing string so it could be re-used to tied up small parcels of meat from the butchers. Also of the special instrument her mother had to make their weekly butter purchase at least look attractive as they were far too poor to purchase sufficient amounts even going by the impoverished standards of the day.
I’m not sure why, but she seemed to take a figurative fancy to me and my guests and she was telling us of how 77 years ago to that very moment, she and her family had been having a picnic on the moors of Devon and they had been listening to the radio. She and her family were doing what pretty much the whole country must have done and indeed much of the world. For the second time in 25 years, Great Britain had declared war on Germany for the at least nominal reasons of foreign treaty obligations.
I interjected for a moment and recited word for word the radio statement given by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. I think it must have brought back even more of the memories for the wonderful lady whose eyes started watering before going on to inform us how everyone fell silent at the much feared but greatly anticipated news.
She was ever so proud of Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and his insistence that the right thing must be done no matter how difficult the task would prove to be.
At the end I gave her a big hug and then she hugged my American tourists before she came back to give the young chap (me, myself and I!) an even bigger hug.
Neville Chamberlain is often written about in a derogatory fashion due to him being one of the prominent politicians in the Appeasement movement, basically avoiding war at any cost to appease or satisfy Hitlers never ending demands.
Whilst I don’t deny Churchill was definitely the right man at the right time for the right job, it shouldn’t be forgotten just how Britain in particular was tired of war, having lost a generation of of young men just a few years earlier. A great many people thought Appeasement was the right way to proceed especially as it wasn’t immediately clear at the time, just what a monster Hitler was.
Chamberlain was an old fashioned and honourable politician, possibly suffering from the early stages of cancer. His appeasement bought valuable time for the British military to prepare for a war which it wasn’t ready for. When he travelled to Germany, the streets were lined with Germans cheering him and desperately hoping that peace could be achieved, something which drove Hitler absolutely mad with fury as he knew that he was making war impossible to avoid.
Lastly there was a quite a common acceptance that if Britain fought another World War then it would mark the end of its long period of global dominance and many were content to safeguard their number 1 position and let Hitler have whatever he wanted. Whilst today there is not even an appetite ti fight in Syria and understandably so after other Middle-Eastern wars, the decision by Chamberlain to voluntarily declare war when not under threat itself and bring the Pax Britannica to a premature end is something that had never been seen before and has not happened since. The only even that could match it today would be the USA declaring war on Russia for invading Crimea or attacking China for continued aggression in the South China Seas… both of which are highly unlikely, unpopular and obviously, something to be avoided.
As it happened, nothing could really be done to save Poland, especially as the Soviet Union had agreed with Hitler to invade and occupy the east of the country. Belgium and France would soon be overrun and Britain would be left almost alone with the exception of brave Commonwealth soldiers to fight Nazism under the inspired leadership of one Winston Churchill.
I think the marvellous lady we met at Chartwell put it right, that when there is evil it must be confronted at all costs but then afterwards we must even more strenuously not hold any grudges or biases and work and enjoy peace.
So as we all sit and enjoy the last moments of summer, I invite you to listen to the famous audio recording below which would set in motion the events of WW2 and change the world forever. I think the pain in the voice of Neville Chamberlain is clear for all to see.