Friday 8th May 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe, the day when the war with Nazi Germany that had begun almost six long years earlier finally came to an end.
It is a moment to remember a generation whose sacrifice preserved our democracy at a time before many of us were born.
We have the benefit of hindsight now, but to understand the relief people felt you have to recall just how uncertain it was that the end of the war would ever come, back in the dark days of 1940 and 1941.
By 1945 the war had touched Barnsley as it touched the whole of our country. The stories that have been preserved give us some sense of the everyday, extraordinary experience of that time.
The pit workers who would sit and watch the bombs falling on Sheffield, “just like bonfire day.” The children sleeping under the table at home to hide from the bombs. The joy of sons returning on leave, and the awful pain when loved ones did not come home.
And VE day 70 years ago was as joyful here as it was anywhere in the country, with street parties, dancing, and bonfires. One mother even gave birth in the middle of the celebrations, and had people doing the conga through the house until she went into labour!
But one of the most affecting stories for me is that of local man Tom Hicks, who joined up in 1939 and served as a Royal Engineer with British Airborne Forces. Tom could have spent the war as an engine driver, but instead he volunteered to join the Army and fought in North Africa, Sicily, and at the Battle of Arnhem. There he lost many of his comrades, and was wounded himself in some of the fiercest fighting of the war. He ended the war as a prisoner working in a German lead mine.
Tom’s story is especially powerful because he told it to me himself just a few days ago, surrounded by memorabilia at his home in Royston. It brought home the reality of the war in a particularly direct and moving way – a living reminder that the sacrifices of that time were borne not by historical figures in a Hollywood movie, but by ordinary people whose heroism was every day and real – and who are still with us today.
On May 8 it is these people, and this spirit, that we will be honouring. In Barnsley, there will be service of remembrance taking place at the war memorial at 3pm – I hope those who can attend do so.
We must always remember the unity and purpose that generation showed, and what they achieved. That, more than our differences, is what should still define us today.
This article was first published in the Barnsley Chronicle on Friday 1st May 2015.