I came to North West England in 1989. A young, inexperienced veterinarian, ready to start my first job away from home and country. And that job brought me into contact with a lot of people, from all backgrounds. Most were lovely people; some became good friends.
However, with Remembrance Day approaching, two experiences stand out.
The story of the Dutch ‘Hotvers’
My first job was in a mixed practice. One of our clients had a pig farm, and every now and then we were called out to see to a sow who needed some ‘get up and go’ after farrowing. It would actually say that in the book: a visit for a ‘get up and go’ injection.
On this particular occasion the boss sent me, and when I came into the stable it was not just the farmer there, but his elderly father as well. They knew I was Dutch, ‘Miss Tulip’ was my nickname with some of the farmers.
The father started talking about his experiences with Dutch people. He had fought in WWII, in Asia, alongside Dutch soldiers. They liberated the camps that westerners had been held prisoner in, and a lot of those prisoners were Dutch. The Dutch soldiers were so shocked at the state their countrymen (and women and children) were in, they wouldn’t stop swearing. This earned them the nickname of ‘Hotvers’ (after the Dutch equivalent of ‘damnit’). He told me about the Hotvers he served with.
The story struck a chord. My great grandmother, her daughter-in-law and the three grandchildren had been in such a camp, my great-uncle in another (men and women camps were separate). After they were liberated, they, like many, were deemed too ill and too weak to manage the journey by sea back to the Netherlands, so they were sent to recover in Australia before being repatriated.
This old soldier could have been involved in the liberation of my family. I will never know, but it haunted me a long time.
Such a humbling experience, to meet someone who was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for your family.
We shall not forget.
Missing presumed dead
Some years later I met an elderly lady, whose little dog was one of my patients. We usually had a quick chat when they came to the vets. We both had a passion for cross stitch and animals, and we had some similar problems in our families.
Her husband was very ill. He had fought in Asia in the war and came back with a lung condition that plagued him the rest of his life. I helped her contact the relevant departments to get an electric scooter for him, to remain mobile during the last months of his life.
After she had lost both her husband and the little dog, she would come to the vets regularly just for a visit and a chat. When she stopped driving, I would go to hers in my lunch break, to have lunch and a cup of tea together. And now and then I’d pick her up to go to a craft show, which we both enjoyed.
One Saturday afternoon I was at her house when she got other visitors as well.
A woman her age, and her daughter. They had a startling story they needed to talk about.
The older woman’s husband had been an airman in the war, and his plane disappeared over the Netherlands, with no trace of him, the navigator or the bomber who were in the plane. Missing, presumed dead.
And then, a few days before I met them, they had a phone call. After having their identity verified, they were informed the war plane had been found buried in a farmer’s field in the Netherlands (a field that had not been worked in for years), and now they had to decide what they wanted. Leave the plane alone, still not knowing if their husband and father died in it. Or unearth the plane, use dog tags or DNA to identify the men, and give them a military burial – either in the Netherlands or in England.
To complicate matters, all three families had to agree to the unearthing and reburial of the men’s remains, otherwise the field would remain untouched. They knew there was at least one body in the plane, the farmer who had started to plough the field could tell that much.
These were men who had been involved in the battle for Arnhem, and both my parents lived nearby in the war. Again, men from the North West, willing, and in this case making, the ultimate sacrifice because strangers needed their help. Again, those strangers were my family.
I never knew what their decision was. My friend died not long after, and I never had the chance to talk to these people again. But I will always be grateful to them, for the sacrifice they made so my family could live in peace again.
Again, a very humbling experience.
We can not forget.
Just ordinary men?
These were ordinary men from the North West, who became extraordinary by their actions. They left their family, their farms or businesses, their country, and went to the other side of the world to fight for the freedom of people they had never met. People who were not from their country, people whose plight they could have ignored.
They risked capture, torture and death. All that, for someone like me. Not me personally, but my direct family. And men like that would risk the same for me, because that is how they were. Heroes, all of them.
We MUST not forget. We simply can’t afford to.
The Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal can be found on their website.