WE didn’t learn about the war at school. Most of what I know about the two world wars is from films or the telly.

I left school knowing more about 18th century iron-makers than the trenches or the Nazis, and the little I did know about war seemed quite romantic - painted-on stockings, handsome GIs and In The Mood.

So when I was sent, as a young reporter, to interview a Second World War veteran who was campaigning for the Japanese government to apologise for the atrocities he and other prisoners of war had been subjected to, it meant little to me. But when the old man started to cry in front of me, in his living-room, I saw that for some people, a war that had taken place half a century ago never went away. It was the first and last time I’d ever met anyone who’d been forced to dig his own grave.

I’ve since interviewed several war veterans and consider it a huge privilege to have met men like Basil Fish, of the legendary 617 ‘Dambusters’ squadron, Lester Hudson, the last of the Yorkshire Chindits, and John Allen who took part in the Dunkirk evacuation and went on to survive the Battle of Monte Cassino. Each of them kept cherished items from their war years - Basil’s flight log book, his escape kit containing a silk map and drawings of Lancaster bombers signed by crew members; Lester’s Chindit hat that he’d worn trekking through the Burmese jungle, as a sniper’s bullet tore through him; John’s photographs of pals in uniform who didn’t make it.

They all spoke fondly about the men they shared the war with. “I was very relieved at the end. But afterwards I missed the crew. We were like family,” recalled Basil.

Said Lester: “I met the best lads I ever knew. I’ll never forget them.”

And as John leafed through his photos he said in a quiet voice: “I’ve never forgotten those lads, and how we kept each others’ spirits up on that long road to Dunkirk.”

All three men have died over the past year. Each November, there are fewer of that generation at the cenotaphs and soon there will be no-one left from those war years. For some, this will be their last Remembrance Sunday. And this year, of course, it will be very different, with virtual services replacing gatherings at churches and cenotaphs.

This pandemic has touched everyone’s lives in 2020, and this month those who have served in conflict, and their families, will feel its impact most strongly.

Meeting war veterans - not just men; I have met military nurses who served overseas too - has brought it home to me what remarkable experiences they’ve had and how important it is to remember them. Thanks to projects like the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Wall of Remembrance and Age UK’s Military Memories, many veterans’ stories are being recorded and preserved, but many more slip through the net.

It’s at this time of year that I think of a kindly old man who lived in an ‘old folks bungalow’ across the road. He gave us sweets when we were kids and my mum said he’d been ‘in the war’.

I didn’t take much notice of old chaps like him who turned out in a shirt and tie to see poppy wreaths being laid on foggy November mornings. It’s only now that I think they would have known the mud and horror of the Western Front.

I didn’t learn about them at school, but I remember them as living people.

And when I travelled to northern France in 2016, to cover the unveiling of a Bradford Pals memorial at the Somme, the names of local men I saw on rows of graves may well have been some of those lads they never forgot, who never came home.