If it wasn’t for the army, I wouldn’t be writing this. Which isn’t as dramatic as it sounds. My dad was a soldier, my mum the daughter of a soldier, they met on an army base. I had two grandads in the army, a great-grandad too. My grandads fought in the Second World War, France, North Africa, Italy; my great-grandad, Bertie, went off to the First World War and, like his three brothers, never came home.
So the army was part of my childhood, much of it spent abroad, Germany, Holland, Belgium. The Cold War years. At Nato headquarters everyone knew there was a vast nuclear-bomb proof bunker… in case.
That was for the soldiers. The rest of us, the families… Never mind that when you’re 12 and there’s a van by the gate producing the best crepes in the world ever. I’d mine with lemon and sugar, my wee brother went for chocolate every time.
In Hide and Seek, Amelie Dreyfus likes chocolate crepes too, she daydreams of them during dangerous days with the resistance. All of which is a roundabout way of explaining why I’ve always wanted to write a book like this, about Amelie, the French Resistance, the underground war.
When we lived in mainland Europe, the war had ended 35 years earlier, not half a lifetime. Its presence was still strong. Some of the older soldiers we saw on visits to my dad’s office fought in it as young men. Some had been in the Resistance, in France, in Holland, Belgium.
There are battlefields everywhere in this part of the world. We lived not far from Waterloo. Once my brother found an exhaust pipe and brought it home convinced it was a Napoleonic-era machine gun. I don’t think anybody was surprised when we didn’t follow the family path to the military.
But there was no escaping the history. Near the Nato base, just outside Mons – itself once a battlefield – was a cemetery. It’s beautiful, like so many of the First World War cemeteries. Among the British dead are some from the first days of the war and yards away some from the last. In between them four years and millions of lives shredded, all to get back where it began. And when the Second World War began the first battles in the west were fought right here. One grandad was part of the British Expeditionary Force’s retreat to the sea. He got out. Just.
Cross the nearby border into France and you come to the Somme. It too is beautiful, rolling countryside, corn rustling in the breeze, poppies splashing colour. Bertie is buried there and so are two of his brothers, although Charlie was never found. His name is on a memorial, his body somewhere beneath a Flanders field.
We’re part of Europe. I’ve always felt European, part of our continent, part of a collective that’s led to the longest period of peace in western Europe for how long? 1940 was the third time German troops had marched into France in 70 years. It hasn’t happened since. Historic enmities die hard; look at the Balkans. The uniting of Europe has made a difference. We’re connected to it, part of it, its heart and its history.
This book comes from the heart of my childhood. Some days I passed the nuclear bunker and thought ‘What if?’ Once we went to Berlin, took the train through the ‘Iron Curtain.’ I remember searchlights and guards with machine guns and dogs, holding our passports to the window and ignoring directions to turn the page. This was a ‘diplomatic train’ and we’d been instructed to hold our passports open at the picture and not turn the page whatever the man in the long leather coat said. It felt scary, and even more it felt exciting.
In Berlin we went to Checkpoint Charlie and then drove to a remote spot by the wall. ‘Look,’ said our host, handing me binoculars and pointing to an East German guard tower. ‘They’ll be watching you.’ I looked, and they were. Same thing, scary and exciting. My brother was spooked enough to refuse to come on a tour of East Berlin.
That’s the Europe I grew up in. It was divided but it was a better Europe than the one Amelie lived in. She would have survived to see my Europe. If she’d been a man she might even have been one of the uniforms I saw at Nato headquarters, her chest covered in medals.
That is one of the many remarkable things about the complex history of resistance in the Second World War. The role of women, some as young as Amelie, was placed in parenthesis. A few like Simone Segouin, snapped aged 18 in a famous photograph clutching a German sub-machine gun during the liberation of Paris, became curiosities. There were 1,038 recipients of the Compagnons de la Liberation medal, only six of them women.
The role of young people is even less documented. By its very nature the resistance, be it the Communist-led forces, the Gaullists or any of the other groups, was shrouded in secrecy and smoke and mirrors. When it was over, it was as ever male voices that crowed the loudest.
There were resisters among the young, brave almost beyond comprehension. Like Simone, like Stephen Grady, a schoolboy son of a French mother and British father. “The world doesn’t seem so frightening when you’re young,” wrote Grady in his memoir, Gardens of Stone. He was trying to explain how he could do what he did at such a young age.
The experiences of children in war are better recorded on the Eastern Front. Svetlana Alexievich’s astonishing book, Last Witness, is almost impossible to read given the stories it tells but it stands as a testament to the strength and courage and ability to survive of many children and young people. In some ways, children seem to be better able to live what’s in front of them than many adults; we are where we are. “The less you know, the braver you can be,” suggested Grady.
My generation were one of the first in a long time to grow up in western Europe without a significant conflict raging across frontiers. The threat was there of course, but it never happened. When I read my history, of my mother’s and father’s and grandmother’s and great-grandfather’s generations, that peace is something I feel fortunate for. We’ve not found ourselves having to be Amelies, and so we should never forget what the real Amelies did and what they stood against. Because forgetting allows the possibility of it happening again.
When I was 16, I went to Dachau concentration camp. It was a long time ago but I have a memory of its stillness. It was so quiet, not even birdsong it seemed. Nothing. There were four of us, Scottish teenagers stumbling around Europe staying in cheap hostels, drinking cheap beer and making happy fools of ourselves. I remember the silence on the bus back from Dachau. Staring out the window. Head full of…
Full of what?
Can you imagine…
No, you cannot. But you must remember and pass it on. That is our duty.
I can imagine an Amelie. There were girls like Amelie, and boys, who did what Amelie does in Hide and Seek. I can imagine children fighting for their lives and I can imagine children surviving to live what was left of their lives. I like to think I might have glimpsed one or two of them when I was Amelie’s age, in their later lives, in Belgium or Holland or France. The old man in the café with his small beer that lasts an afternoon, the middle-aged woman who lived on the next-door farm and made the best apple pies. Imagine the stories they could tell, the adventures they might have had. I wish I’d asked, I wish I’d heard their stories.