Can history teach us anything?

Blog Editorial April 2022

It has often been said that the only thing we can learn from history is that we are unable to learn anything from history. However, one thing a study of history certainly does teach us is that human beings can’t resist arguing and fighting with each other. As a terrible war has suddenly broken out in Europe with the Russian invasion of Ukraine it seemed appropriate this month to look back on British involvement in wars of the past.

Of course this is not the first time that European powers have fought over Eastern Europe. The Crimean War (1853–6) saw several European countries battling to prevent Russian expansion into what was then part of the Turkish Empire, with Britain and France in particular anxious to preserve the balance of power in Europe to protect their own empires. The Victorian Crimean war has been seen as one of the first ‘modern’ wars with new technologies such as the railway, the telegraph and explosive shells changing the way battles were fought, and photography allowed the war to be documented as never before. It was also the Crimean war which transformed European nursing when Florence Nightingale, ‘The Lady with the Lamp’, demonstrated that hygienic nursing conditions could dramatically reduce soldier’s death rates from infection.

As an island nation the British have a long history as sailors and traders who explored the world looking for new opportunities and natural resources they could exploit. As the British Empire developed during the Tudor and Stuart period Britain became known for its naval power and military might and today we are still coming to terms with the consequences of our actions in other countries and an understanding that a hero to one country can be a tyrant to another.

Down the centuries many local people have been involved in conflicts across the globe. William Humbley of Hail Weston was a professional soldier who served with the 95th Regiment of Foot (Rifles) during the Napoleonic Wars 1803 – 1815. He fought at Waterloo, where he was wounded in both shoulders, but lived to return home and settle in Eynesbury where he built a new house for himself and his family called Waterloo Cottage, commemorated today by the road name Waterloo Drive.

unknown artist; Lieutenant Colonel W. Humbley; The Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum; 

Alfred Chapman of Eaton Socon had initially joined the Victorian army in February 1889, when he was 18 years old. He was an experienced saddler and horse collar maker, skills which were essential to the army as they depended on horses for most of their transport needs. Alfred served in the Royal Engineers and fought in the Boer War in South Africa before retiring from the Army in 1907. Then in August 1914, he joined up again at the outbreak of the Great War. Sadly, Alfred was injured in France in January 1917 when he was buried by an exploding shell and he was invalided home to Fulbourn hospital where he died in May 1918.

Alfred Chapman of Eaton Socon

Many local men also fought during the Second World War. Bert Goodwin of, of Great Paxton, did not join up at the beginning of the war because he was an agricultural worker and farming was a reserved occupation. However in April 1941 Bert joined the 30th Artillery Regiment and began training at Fenstanton.  During his army career Bert fought in North Africa at Tobruck and at El Alamain. Later in 1944 he was sent to Italy and helped to drive the German Army north out of Italy – fighting at Monte Cassino on the way. After the war Bert returned to St Neots and lived in Eynesbury for the rest of his life


Victor Ekins, of St Neots, also fought in the Second World War, serving in the Royal Air Force. He completed his pilot’s training just as the aerial Battle of Britain began in July 1940 and was soon involved in defending Britain in the air, flying both Spitfire and Hurricane fighter planes. Eventually Victor was shot down in September 1940, but luckily he was able to parachute to safety. He gradually recovered from his injuries and served in the RAF until the end of the war. After the war he returned to St Neots and managed the livestock auction market that once stood in New Street, where the Market Court flats stand today.

Recalling the lives of these three local men is in no way intended to lessen the contribution of the many hundreds of local men and women who have served since the Napoleonic era, and local war memorials stand as a testament to the sacrifices of local people while also commemorating the millions of ordinary people who have suffered during past wars across the globe.

Wars often have unintended consequences, accelerating technological, social and economic changes. After the First World War women were given the vote in recognition of their work during the war. After the Second World War huge pressure for social change enabled the labour government to launch the National Health Service, improving the lives of millions of people. What changes might this latest war bring?