Features | Remembrance Day: the forgotten victims of conflicts
As Remembrance Day approaches, Victoria Hesketh talks to a victim of the World War Two Blitz and remembers those victims who did not fight in the war.
This Remembrance Day many will be thinking of the soldiers both past and present but what about the other victims of conflict?
November 11, a single day with a thousand meanings, all significant to individual people. Its well known origin – the amnesty of the First World War seems such a concrete fact despite its broader symbolic meaning today. On Remembrance Day, we gather as a nation, to remember, to grieve and to pray for the soldiers who lost their lives, who fought for our country, who were injured in the line of duty and who fight for us today across the world. Yet, these are not the only victims of conflict.
World War Two was as much fought in Britain as it was in Europe. The Battle for Britain, July to September 1940, was Germany’s unsuccessful attempt to beat the Royal Air Force and knock Britain out of WW2. Once this avenue failed Hitler concentrated on air strikes to break the British fighting morale, which became known as the Blitz. So the home front played an integral role in victory over Hitler, yet the focus is never wholly on the everyday British citizens who lost their lives, despite the long German air campaign. The stories recounted to us on the news are always of soldiers, yet with the centenary of the First World War approaching near, it is important to remember all the victims of conflict. 43,000 civilians died during the Blitz, which occurred mainly in Great Britain’s biggest cities, including London and Liverpool, with one of the most famous raids on November 14 in Coventry.
The following history is the personal experience of the then eight year old Teresa O’Brien, as she recounts her memories of the day her house, 113 Gildarts Gardens, Liverpool, was destroyed on May 3, 1941. This was the third day of what came to be known as “Eight Days of Hell”, when the Liverpool dock area was ferociously and relentlessly bombed, as Teresa recalls “sirens where a nightly occurrence”.
However, unbeknown to the O’Brien family and others within the Holy Cross School Shelter that night, a German parachute mine was about to hit. Teresa remembers being pulled out of the rubble and “climbing over dead bodies” before being ushered to a camp. She had no knowledge of what had happened to her family, or the others in the shelter during the raid. Her eldest sister, now in charge, used her initiative and carried her younger sister to their grandmother’s home, where they were to be reunited with their mother, Mary O’Brien.
Unfortunately, this was far from the happy reunion you would be lucky to expect, as their mother had terrible news to divulge. During the raid Teresa’s older brother Edward O’Brien, who was affectionately called Teddy, had been killed. Teddy, 15, who had recently started work, had died shielding his mother from the blast, while “getting her a glass of water”. Teddy, though the only fatality for the O’Brien family, was not the only victim; Jimmy, Teresa’s now only brother, was blinded from the blast and suffered from shock. Teddy was among 72 others who perished in the Holy Cross School Shelter.
Like many other families at the time, there was only the mother to hold the family together as Teresa’s father, Edward O’Brien, was in the army. Teresa speaks very highly of her mother calling her a “strong character” and above all else a “hero”.
Teresa was unable to attend the funeral but her father was given a few days leave so he could say his farewells to his eldest son. Teresa however does recall how it had to be a closed coffin, because of the nature of his wounds and her mother’s insistence that Teddy should be buried with their grandmother, where he remains to this day.
Like 1.4 million others left homeless during the Blitz, the O’Brien family found a new home in Dovecot and “never went back” to their destroyed home in Gildarts Gardens. Apart from having an Anderson shelter in their new back garden, the only reminder of Teddy’s death was her mother’s thinking “that we all go together.” To this day, Teresa still lives with the memories of her early childhood; “you never get over it”. When at a museum, Teresa found she had to leave when the replica sirens went off.
Remembrance Day is not just a day for soldiers and veterans. If anything Teresa’s story shows us the need to remember everyone who has been touched by war and conflict, both now and in the past, on British and foreign soil. So this Remembrance Day, when you’re thinking about the lost soldiers, spare a thought for Teddy and the countless others who lost their lives in conflicts.