Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Requiem in a dawn light

  • 24 April 2024
  ‘They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old’: the flat old diggers’ voices in the dawn light enunciating Binyon’s ritualized words as if it was the liturgy of an immemorial rite. And so it has become, long, long ago when a nation defined itself in terms of loss. ‘We shall remember them’. And so we do, the kids who go to Turkey as if in quest of an alternate Iliad, one full of the sorrow that captures the tears in things, the lacrimae rerum of the other epic tragedian, the Roman one, Virgil. 

Of course for those born in the wake of World War II, war stories seemed the greatest fun on earth. Douglas Bader, the great legless airman of Reach for the Sky. Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe and the most charming of Nazis, said they would not contest the retrieval of Commander Bader’s legs. Bomber Harris said rubbish, they bloody well should: the RAF were up to it. And speaking of bombs, think of The Dam Busters, the knight errantry, the swashbuckling effrontery of the reckless courage they showed. It was the Knights of the Round Table born again in those dynamized towers in the sky, never mind (and we didn’t) the devastation of the Ruhr Valley. And the boomer generation loved the war stories set in offices, POW camps. Stories like the Eric Williams books The Tunnel and The Wooden Horse were the purest kind of pleasure. All those escape stories like enactments of getting away from school, especially boarding school. And the German commandant was a man of honor who had said he would shoot himself first if he were ever ordered to shoot his prisoners. Though he also added the delight of the comic dimension. ‘You think I know — nothing, but I know — all.’ Amended effortlessly to ‘damn nothing,’ and ‘damn all’. The Great Escape was a thrilling adventure as a book and a slightly different one in the Steve McQueen/Dickie Attenborough film. Billy Wilder had his own take on these benign camps in Stalag 17, but this whole rollicking romp of a war recollected as thrilling adventure was all our hearts desired. 

And it wasn’t hard to be stirred by the words of Field-Marshall Slim when he said he had witnessed all the great theaters of war, ‘But never have I seen such men as these men of the