WW2 People

|   28 May 2011

‘I wish I had died in the war’

The Blitz – a time of death and glory for Britain

In the spring of 1986 I was driving through the Loire valley, listening to an interview on Radio 4 with Enoch Powell, one of the most famous British politicians of the time. It was all predictable stuff until Powell was asked how he would like to be remembered. After giving one fairly anodyne response,  Powell replied: ‘I should like to have been killed in the war.’

At the time I thought this was a bonkers answer. And not just bonkers, but potentially immensely hurtful to his close friends and family. But, curiously, the older I get the more sympathy I have with Enoch Powell’s response.

Powell had an extraordinary war. He joined as a private soldier and finished it as the youngest Brigadier in the Army. He helped plan Monty’s victory at El Alamein and then served in India. But he did not see active service on the front line, and clearly felt guilty that he had not risked his life as so many others had.

But there is more, I think, to his remark that he wished he had died in the war than mere guilt. Powell, as a classical scholar – he was made Professor of Greek at Sydney University when he was twenty five years old – was fully aware, as were the Romans, of the transitory nature of life and the importance of dying with honour.

Moreover, his life since the war had been controversial rather than one of fulfillment. He had witnessed, in his judgment, many disappointments – from the rise of America and the loss of India, to Britain’s policy on immigration. He was at times wildly at odds with established political opinion. Indeed, many people believed that Enoch Powell was a racist.

But during the Second World War his own experience of utter certainty chimed with that of his comrades. There was no controversy, no disappointment, only the knowledge that they were all doing the right thing. And not only that, but they were young. And the young have not the fear of death that many of the old possess.

2 Responses to “‘I wish I had died in the war’”

  1. Nicked says:

    Too true. Young people do not have the perspective to realise the real horror of death. Although I’ve always intensely disliked Enoch Powell and think if he had died in the war we might all have been better off.

  2. Catweazle says:

    A common cause is something we lack now, but I wouldn’t want a war to bring us together.