In 1972 we played at school, after school and every weekend. We had boundless energy but a limited range of games. The first was a massive game of football, typically with a tennis ball or a rapidly deflating football suffering from the concrete playground surface. The second was a series of variations on British Bulldog which sometimes involved being hit by a ball as well as being caught. It often resulted in scabby knees.
And then there were the war games: English vs Germans, Battle Of Britain, Japs and Commandos and occasionally cowboys and Indians. I never remember there being any squabbles about who played what part and the essence of the games was paintballing without the paintballs. We all had toy guns at home but never had them at school. The only roleplay involved was the compulsory whooping if you were a redskin, nyowwwing if you were an aeroplane, dackadackadacka if you happened to be armed with a machine gun (pyow, pyow if you were a cowboy with a pistol) and occasional German commands straight from the pages of the war comic strips. Warfare for schoolboys was about derring-do and hand-to-hand combat.
I was born in 1964 and the war was a distant event in my mind. The Russians were the enemy then and, although we had the films at school on what to do in the event of a nuclear explosion (sit under a table I think), we hadn’t found a game for that particular conflict.
I am reading Anthony Beevor’s excellent The Second World War. I realise that when I was born the war was only 19 years over. In modern terms it bore the same relationship to today’s newborns as Gazza’s tears at Italia ’90 or the opening of the Channel Tunnel. I find it shocking that collective memory is so short. I have no recollection of the war being regularly referred to except in the playground. Admittedly, the Channel Tunnel is dry fodder but Gazza? Platty’s goal on the turn against Belgium? The penalty shootout?
The benefit of a broader life experience, the passage of time and the insight of Anthony Beevor, is in a better understanding. Reading the sequence of events makes me realise how nature – disease and famine in particular – plays as big a part in warfare as the fighting itself. Fighting fronts are backed up by fragile supply lines which make or break campaigns. The politics and personal relationships between national leaders determine priorities and allegiances which turn defeat into victory – leaders of countries are as vulnerable to obstinacy and obsession as us all. A generation of political leaders in China, France and Russia were trained on the battlefields for peacetime success. The technology of tanks, submarines, bombs, planes and guns gives critical advantages which human bravery can’t defeat. The human factor is more about decisive action or catastrophic prevarication by leaders than success by individual units on the battlefield.
Real warfare is played out on a huge canvas with only cameos making the newspapers… but that would have made a very dull playground game.