In spite of political turmoil after the US elections, the most important events in the UK this week were the Remembrance celebrations.
On Friday I visited the Westminster Abbey Field of Remembrance. On a cold quiet evening I spent a while listening to a historian who told a story of Poles who fought in both world wars. Europe’s nations’ histories are intertwined, and the Polish-British relationship started well before the fathers of today’s European Union started shaping their dream.
After a series of bad decisions at the end of 18th century, Poland ceased to exist. Over a hundred years later, in 1914, Poles were incorporated into three conflicted WWI armies and tragically often fought against each other. It was only in 1918, when the three occupying powers crumbled, that Poland was reborn as an independent country, celebrating henceforth 11/11 as its Independence Day. Right from then, it had been developing a special bond with Britain.
In 1929, it opened its embassy in London, and a decade later, in May 1939, Britain gave Poland an unprecedented guarantee to support her ally, like it had supported Belgium in WWI, as PM Neville Chamberlain decided that after invading Czechoslovakia, Nazi Germany could not be allowed to threaten another country.
As M. Pruszewicz of BBC News puts it, “Britain hoped that would be enough – it was not. Germany attacked and defeated Poland in a few weeks. Britain declared war, but could not aid Poland.
“Poland’s defeat, followed by that of France, ensured that those Poles still able to fight found their way to Britain. Polish servicemen gained a reputation for bravery and ingenuity. One of the Polish squadrons in the RAF, 303 Squadron, recorded the highest number of kills of any squadron in the Battle of Britain.
“The first cipher crackers to break Germany’s Enigma code were not based in Bletchley Park but Warsaw. The Poles realised that mathematics held the key and made a vital disclosure of their working methods to the Allies at the start of the war.” They were only officially honoured in 2014.
There have been a number of waves of Polish immigration to Britain since the WWII, all of them related to political changes, including the most recent, and perhaps the most controversial one, following the expansion of the EU.
Standing with my Polish flag and a poppy on it, on the corner of Whitehall and King Charles Street, just meters from the Cenotaph, I experienced a wealth of impressions: how proud the veterans were to be there on the day, how many different people came and went, speaking languages I sometimes couldn’t even name, how much respect was shown from the crowds to those parading and how touching the whole ceremony was. I guided some lost Polish women, watched the Queen lay a wreath on a bystander’s smartphone, which she so kindly shared with me. But most poignantly, I saw Polish veterans march in the parade, on par with the British ones – an undeniable proof of how strong the bond between our nations truly is.