Chapter Three: An Edwardian Childhood
Jessie was the eighth child born to George and Bertha Gulliver, and the first of the new Edwardian era. She was born the year Queen Victoria died, 1901. Her earliest memory was from when she was about two and a half, and the Gulliver family was living at Ufton. She sat on the school wall and the teachers came out and told her to get off, because the children couldn’t concentrate with her sitting on the wall. She went home to her mother and asked what concentrate meant, and she couldn’t speak it very well. Her mother told her she could sit on the wall at play-time and dinner-time, or in holidays, but she mustn’t sit on the wall when the children were in school, because they couldn’t concentrate when she was playing on the wall. She thought that was a bit hard, really, for one two and a half years old. She used to go around Ufton with her elder brothers, Seymour and Arnold, and they’d play around Harbury Cement Works. Her brothers once got an old door and put two pieces of wood under it and used two other pieces for oars, taking Jessie out on a small brook. Their mother and father were very angry with the boys because they could have fallen in the brook and drowned. Looking back on this incident, Jessie remarked, you know what they say, God looks after children and drunkards! So her mother and father spent their young days at Ufton. She could remember the primroses, violets and bluebells in Ufton Wood and the part where the Chamberlains, the people who owned the cement works, were buried, railed off right at the end of the wood. She came across that a few years after going back on a visit to Ufton from Coventry, taking her mother round to see her father’s sister.
Jessie remembered leaving Ufton. Her father left his job as a coachman at the Chamberlain’s house to work at Harbury Cement Works. So first they went to live in a rented cottage in Bishop’s Itchington, not far from Ufton. They paid half a crown a week for it in rent. However, the cement works didn’t suit her father, because the cement dust got on his chest and he had to go back onto the London work, riding the coaches between Leamington and London. Jessie could remember how ’hard up’ they were at this time. One Sunday, when she was about three or four, she came home from Sunday School, where they’d been reading about Joseph with the coat of many colours. Her mother had bought her brother Arnold a little navy blue coat and he’d left it on Harbury Cement Works, and she was ever so upset and crying when Jessie went in and, of course, all Jessie could say to the rest of the family was he’s lost the coat of many colours! But, it was a job for my mother to get clothes for us in those days, and she liked us to be dressed nicely. I don’t know how she managed to do it, but she did.
So it was that, in 1904, George accepted an invitation to work on Lord Dugdale’s estate near Wroxall, along the old coaching road running west from Warwick and Leamington. He was under-manager on one of the four estate farms. The Dugdales were very generous to all their labourers, who were given comfortable houses with gardens, and at Christmas each family would receive a ton of coal and a piece of beef, plus some money for the children’s shoes. For each birth, the Dugdales sent a hamper of things, including coverings with golden embroidery. So now the family felt a lot better off. The only problem was that the children had to walk a mile and a half to school, which was run by the nearby abbey, hence the shoe allowance, no doubt. Otherwise, they were comfortable enough, even with two more additions to their family. Jessie discovered her love of poetry in Wroxall, at first by attending The Band of Hope there. This was a temperance society for children which she began attending when she was four and five years old. Even at so young an age, the children had to promise never to drink and to help them understand what this ‘pledge’ was all about, she had to learn to recite by heart moralising poems. She could still recite a lengthy narrative piece called, The Convict’s Little Jim, word-perfect, ninety years later. However, she had always thought it was a terrible thing to teach a child, with scenes of domestic violence, murder and execution!
George had trouble with the manager over ’harvest money’. Vinson and Alfred had to work longer hours alongside their father, but when they were payed out only George received the overtime payment. George went to see Lord Dugdale, who said the money had been paid through the manager. However, the manager had pocketed the money himself, so he was then made to pay it on to the boys. After that, however, the manager made life difficult for George, so he decided to leave, and that was why the family moved to Caludon Lodge in 1909. So, when Jessie was about eight, in 1909, the family moved from Wroxall to Walsgrave, then still in Warwickshire, on the other side of Coventry. The children all went on the van. There must have been about eight of them, she thought, but their mother decided to come by train from Berkswell into Coventry, with the youngest, Arthur. When the van got to the house where they were going to live, Caludon Lodge, near Walsgrave, the people (who were leaving) hadn’t got out, so there we were, all us kids, stuck with the furniture and my Dad worried to death. He didn’t know what to do. So, they all ended up at Green’s Farm where George and the older boys were going to work. At first, Mrs Green didn’t know what to do with so large a family, but it was a large enough farmhouse for them to have a kitchen and one bedroom and a landing. So the whole family was staying there. Their mother had to walk all the way from Gosford Green (Bus Station) with Arthur, who was only four years old. In those days, the trams only ran around the city, and Walsgrave was outside the area of the County Borough. So, she was already planning to walk a distance of nearly three miles, which would now be extended by at least another half mile down the farm lane. When the rest of the family arrived at Caludon Lodge, the lady next door gave Jessie an old pram to go and meet her mother. She met her on Ball Hill, a long and somewhat steep climb out of the city, already tired out, but Jessie had to tell her the bad news, that the people couldn’t get out of the Lodge because the people were still in the house that they were going to, and that her dad had taken all the furniture down to the farm. They managed very well in the kitchen, and Jessie slept on the landing with two of the others, on their mattresses. They were there six weeks and Mrs Green said she didn’t even know we were there, we were such good children. They had good fun on the farm, especially the girls, because the Green’s had a family of boys, so they had a good time with them in the hay!
After that, they went up to Caludon Lodge. It was a very nice house, built in brick; with railings all round it, little holly bushes all around the garden, and a porch in the middle. The kitchen and the front room were at right angles to each other and there were two passages, one from the front room and one from the kitchen. There was a big yard at the back with a long bench where mother could put about four bowls for washing. There was a big ‘copper’ (kettle) and a little one. Mother always had the little one on and the kids used to go and get sticks (for the wood-fired range), so there was always warm water in the big kitchen to wash with. There was a most beautiful garden, with pear trees, plum trees and apple trees with mistletoe growing up one of them. It was ever so long; it went right down past two houses, and Mr Green took a piece off it eventually and built two houses on it for more farm labourers. So they had quite a happy time at Caludon. They could go to Binley, Wyken or Stoke schools. But Caludon was just outside the Parish of Walsgrave (which was still in Warwickshire at that time, outside Corporation area), so they couldn’t go to the Church of England village school. So, they were sent to Binley School, which was run by Whitley Abbey. They therefore had another two-mile walk to school across the fields, starting early with two sandwiches to eat on the way. Then they had a school dinner and a meal when they got home at about half past four. Soon after they arrived, Binley Colliery was built and a new school had to be built, so Jessie’s last two years at school were spent there. They could leave at thirteen in those days if they had a job to go to. Her mother used to get her meat from a Brown’s Butchers on Ball Hill and Mr Brown said she could have a job taking his little boy out (he was about a year old) for half a crown (2s 6d) a week. So Jessie used to walk all the way from Walsgrave to Ball Hill, a distance of about a mile and a half, for about nine o’clock. As they were sometimes still having breakfast when she arrived, they would invite her to have some. She always refused, although I was always ever so hungry, and I used to sneak into the pantry at about eleven o’clock, before I took the little boy out, and pinch a bit of bread ‘n’ cheese!
Chapter Four: Memories of War and Work
Jessie began working for Brown’s Butchers when she turned thirteen, a year before the First World War broke out. Then, from July 1914, anyone who had bedrooms in Coventry had to take Australian soldiers in. She didn’t know what port they came in through (probably Portsmouth, the closest to Coventry), but they all came along the Walsgrave Road into the city, and therefore all passed by Caludon Lodge. They were all dressed in khaki, with their hats turned up at the side, waiting for our government to say where they were to be quartered. So three of them were staying at Brown’s. They’d had two fellows living and working there, taking the meat around in those days, but they’d had to go to war themselves. So Mr Brown asked Jessie to take meat down to Stoke Park Hall, which had been requisitioned for ‘the ANZAC’s’ and the kitchens asked her to take their orders back to him, thinking he was my father. But he never increased her pay and if he didn’t give me my half a crown on Saturdays, I never asked him for it. Kids were funny in those days! Jessie got another job eventually. A lady was having a baby and she was to take the little boy or girl out. She offered her 10s a week; four times what she was getting at Brown’s. However, the woman’s husband also expected her to perform extra duties. While the lady was in bed, having the baby, her husband was at home having a few days off, and he tried to kiss Jessie, though he must have known she was only fourteen. She described how..
I started to walk round the table, and he followed me. So I kept walking round, and the dog started to howl. Their dog always howled if somebody played the piano in the front room. So his wife shouted down, ‘what’s the dog howling for?’ So I said, ‘oh, Mr Prescott is in the front room playing the piano, and you know the dog doesn’t like piano music.’ As I walked round the table, when I got near the stairs I went up. He never tried it on again; of course, he was at work all the while.
She stayed there a few weeks, and there were three Jessies in the house, because the mother and the baby were both named Jessie. It was a bad time for her own family, though, because her mother had to go into hospital with a poisoned knee. In those days you had to pay £5 per week in fees, provide your own food and pay for transport to the hospital if you couldn’t walk. But Bertha quickly got over it. Jessie thought her mother was wonderful, especially after having three little girls in five years: She never shouted at us, or hit us. She was quite a lady, who went to Church on Sunday evenings. All the children had to go on Sunday mornings and afternoons (to Sunday School), dressed in their best clothes. It took her all the next day to wash and clean, starch and press them and put them away. Now the War was on, and women could get well-paid jobs working on munitions. Jessie got a job working at the Royal Ordinance Works, Red Lane. She got much more money there and soon had enough saved for a bicycle. Instead of having to walk all the way across by Wyken Church, right up the Black Pad to the Ordinance Works, night and morning, she could cycle:
That’s how my life went on through the war years. We were working from six in the morning till six at night on two pieces of bread and ‘dripping’ (lard) and canteen tea which you could have wrung a dishcloth out in.
Sometimes they were quite nervous about the war, although it didn’t affect the women directly very much, unless they lost a loved one on the Western Front. They did see, however, a huge airship, a Zeppelin, sailing over Walsgrave, which frightened us all to death, and made them realise some of the reality of modern warfare for the first time:
It was terrifying, just like a great big boat.
In general, however, they remained largely unaffected by the early stages of the war. Jessie recalled that:
…It was only really the rationing which touched us, because my mother had about ten of us at home, and had to go into Coventry for what she could get… it was a good job we had the garden and all the stuff from it and my Dad could always keep it beautiful and grow plenty of potatoes, cabbages, etc. We survived!
Walsgrave-on-Sowe Village Centre from St Mary’s Churchyard (drawing by Rev A J Chandler)
Chapter Five: The Twenties
When the war finished, Jessie went to Oxford, to her aunt, Molly Tidmarsh (née Sanders). Things were much better for her there, because it was impossible to get a job in Coventry; nobody could, neither woman nor man. But, when the women went to sign on at the Labour Exchange, the officials often insulted them. They asked, ‘have you been round all the factories?’ when they knew very well that there were no jobs in the factories, especially for women. Jessie’s Aunt Molly kept The Black Horse in Kidlington near Oxford. She had one daughter, so she told her sister, ‘send Jess over to the pub; I’ll give her 10s a week, that’ll keep her in clothes. She’ll be a friend for Doll’ (her daughter).
Living in the country and having a can of milk twice a day meant Jessie became much healthier too. With her cousin, she went dancing in Oxford with the undergrads, who would bring them home in a taxi to Kidlington. She began to speak much better and dress better. She had a boyfriend in Coventry whom she used to write letters to, but when she went home to Walsgrave he said there was a vast difference in her, and that he couldn’t believe she’d changed so much. They eventually broke off their relationship when he began going out with a girl from the Baptist Chapel in Walsgrave. Jessie stayed at Kidlington for about two years, but as her uncle used to drink the whiskey and they didn’t make much profit, they decided to leave Kidlington and her uncle got a job with the Peak Freane biscuit company in Bermondsey, London, as their cricket grounds man, being given a cottage on the ground, near the Pavilion. Jessie had also decided to go up to London, because she’d been offered a job there, but she wasn’t able to stay with her aunt and uncle because the cottage wasn’t big enough. So she went into service at Primsbury Park. She came home to Coventry only on short holidays, when she was able to go to dances. Many soldiers were there in uniform, not yet ‘demobbed’. She danced with a young man named Tommy Gardner, looking very smart in blue dress uniform with gold braiding all across his chest:
Girls were not supposed to fancy soldiers or sailors in those days, because we always thought they were common. But I liked him, so I danced with him all that evening and he asked to see me home. I had come with a girl from next door, so I found her, and the three of us went home together. As we stood talking by our house, he asked if he could see me again the next day. I agreed, but told him I was returning to London on the Monday. He suggested that I write and ask for another week, so I did. We kept on writing after that, and he asked me to come home again, because he was feeling very lonely.
By this time, the early twenties, the Gulliver family had left Caludon Lodge. They had lived there for about twelve years, since Jessie was eight. However, with four children still at home, and the factories expanding again in the early twenties, George had decided to take the better wages offered there, even though it meant leaving their farm tenancy and moving into a rented house in Foleshill. So he went to work for Armstrong-Siddeley as a stoker in the early twenties. While working on the farm, he had been kicked in the stomach by a horse, and soon fell ill with cancer, although according to Jessie, he worked himself to death, dying at the age of sixty-five in 1927. He had to have a room to himself and there were still four children at home, two sisters and two brothers. Irene and Bertha were working, and Arthur and Frank were still at school in 1924, aged thirteen and eleven. Their mother shared a second room with Bertha and Irene, until Irene married, and the two boys, Arthur and Frank, were in the third. Mother had to sleep in the girls’ room, because she got so little sleep if she slept with George. So Jessie could not go home, as there wouldn’t be enough room in the girls’ room for her. Also, with George not working, there was very little money coming into the household. So Jessie wrote to Tommy to tell him that she would have to save some money in order to come home.
Tommy’s father was a lithographer and head printer, but had died, leaving Tommy an orphaned child. He was raised in Dr Barnado’s orphanage, and then, from the age of thirteen, by his aunt. He had joined the army when he was only sixteen, but he’d said that he was eighteen, just to get away from his aunt’s family. Tommy had learnt woodwork in the Army, and he began working at the General Electric Company (GEC), making cabinets for wirelesses. That was his first civilian job and his money was £2. 5s. a week. So, Jessie came home eventually, in 1924, and got work straight away. She went to work in a café, so her mother did not go without money for her, and she had most of her meals there. After Irene married, she was able to take her place in the room her mother was sharing with her daughters. Tommy would come down to the café every night. They were both twenty-three, not that young in the twenties, so he was very keen to get engaged straight away and wanted to get married quickly. But Jessie said, ‘how can we get married with only twenty pounds between us and my father ill?!’ So they got married at a registry office and said nothing to anyone. Jessie wore her wedding ring around her neck on a chain.
After their marriage in 1918, Seymour and Vera (left) had set up home in one of the gardeners’ cottages belonging to the Wakefield Estate. When Jessie was ’courting’ Tommy, who had secretly become her husband in 1924, they would go round and play cards with Seymour and Vera, walking home to Foleshill often very late. By this time, Seymour and Vera had had their first child, Gwen. Both Seymour and Vera were strong trade unionists and Labour Party supporters. Seymour had inherited a strong sense of fairness from his father, perhaps because he was old enough to understand why they had had to leave Wroxall in 1909. Vera’s family, the Browns, were also strong supporters of the Labour Party, from before January 1924, when it first won a General Election under Ramsay MacDonald. Daphne (b. 1931) remembered the following song, to the tune of Men of Harlech, which Vera used to sing long after MacDonald’s expulsion from the Party for forming the National Government in 1931:
Voters All of Aberavon,
Wisdom show in this election,
Don’t be misled by Protection,
Ramsay is the Man!
Ramsay, Ramsay, shout it!
Don’t be shy about it!
On then, comrades, on to glory,
It shall be told in song and story,
How we beat both Lib and Tory,
Ramsay is the Man!
Seymour had a strong sense of social justice, and was a keen member of the Binley lodge of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. On one occasion, he stuck up for a fellow collier who was being bullied by a foreman, and was dismissed from Binley Colliery on the spot. He had to go to Newdigate Colliery to get work there. The conditions there were far worse than at Binley, and when he undressed to bath in front of the living room fire, his clothes would stand up by themselves, from the combination of mud, coal-dust and sweat which had caked them in the pit and then dried on them during his long walk home at the end of each shift. His body was covered with boils and he had to have special treatment at the Coventry and Warwick Hospital, where they made an experimental serum to cure his condition. Eventually his wife Vera told him,
you’ll just have to put your pride in your pocket; you can’t go back down Newdigate; you’d better go back to Binley and ask for your job back.
So he went back to Binley Colliery, apologised, and got his job back.
Although secretly married to Jessie in 1924, Tommy Gardner was still in single lodgings, which he didn’t like much, so Jessie got him to go and live with her sister, Millie. She’d got two little girls and she used to take policemen in. They had to live in digs, because they didn’t have apartments or rooms attached to the police stations then. So Millie always used to have a policeman lodging, because her husband only rode the buses, or drove buses, and the money wasn’t very good. So Tommy went to live with her, and he was very happy there. The children loved having Tommy because he used to bring them a bar of chocolate every Friday night. But Millie didn’t offer that Jessie could go and live there when she found out that they had married in secret. The couple used to go round and see her brother Alf, who was in the Navy. Lilly, his wife, had one little boy, and she was there on her own with him. They used to go and see her quite a lot, partly because she had a piano and Tommy could play anything on the piano. But they found it increasingly difficult to keep their marriage a secret:
Alf’s wife asked us one night, when we’d been married about three months, ‘when are you two getting married?’ I said, ‘I’m not getting married!’ She said, ‘don’t be so silly! You’re just made for each other! What are you going out with him for? You can’t treat him like that!’ I said, ‘I am married!’ ‘What?’ she said, ‘you are married?!’ I said, ‘yes, I’ve been married three months!’ ‘Oh, my God!’ she said, ‘I can’t go and tell your mother and your dad!’ So Tommy said, ‘well, I’ll go round and tell them!’ So he went round straight away and told my mother that we’d been married in a Registrar’s. I don’t know whether he told her how long, and then he saw Dad, who said, ‘oh, that’s alright, my lad, I always liked you!’ When Mother went to Church on Sunday nights, we used to stop in and look after him when he was ill, so he was all right about it, but I don’t think my mother thought much about it. She said, ‘well what are you going to do? Where are you going to live?’ Lilly said, ‘I’ve got an empty room, so why don’t you come and live with me? I’m away half the time down at Portsmouth when the ship comes in! There’s a spare room; you can furnish that.’
So they went there, furnished the spare room, and that’s where they started married life. Jessie kept her job and they were able to save quite a bit of money. In fact, they were only there about six months before they’d got about a hundred pounds, enough to furnish a place in those days. So they started to look for a place of their own. Eventually, they got a bungalow. They only paid 6s 1d a week rent for it. It had two bedrooms, and a long living room, which took a dining table. After George died in 1930, Jessie’s mother had a three-bedroom one. They were built as temporary accommodation for war-workers coming into Coventry, but they were very comfortable inside. There was a communal bathhouse where clothes washing could also be done. Some were built for people with better positions and they had all got baths in and Millie had one of these. After the First World War ended, these managers left these houses. They were prefabricated cottages, and therefore fireproof. Tommy made a fireplace, with a mantelpiece for ornaments, and a wardrobe;
He built a porch and a garden fence all around with a gate, and made a beautiful garden. He built a garage out back made of laths, screwed together. He didn’t use a single nail. There was also a fireplace in the bedroom and whenever anyone brought children to visit they all played in the bedroom on the beds, because we’d built a fire in there and it was warm. The men would go into the spare room and play cards while we cleared the table in the living room, and then they’d come back. Those were the days!
That was in 1925, when Tommy earned an average wage of about £2. 10s. But he had brains, so he decided to leave his trade, though it was difficult to leave your place of work in those days, and he was out of work for about eight weeks while Jessie kept them from her earnings as a waitress. He went into the motor-trade at the wood place of the Riley Car Works, on Woodrington Road, near Foleshill Station. They used to make the dashboards out of wood. They needed semi-skilled workers and because he had made cabinets he could read a drawing, so they gave him a job. The GEC couldn’t stop him going there, because it wasn’t a federated ‘shop’, as it had only just opened. They were hard up for workers as well, because all the men were in work at that time. There he’d earn about £10 a week, with overtime, £6 on ordinary time. He’d be out of work for about three months (laid-off in the summer), but could always put some money away for those times. It used to be three months out, three months short time and three months mad-time. He soon got enough for a motorbike, and then they had a car.
In 1926, Seymour was out on strike and was locked out of the Colliery for six months in support of the miners, especially those in South Wales, who worked in difficult places and were having their wages cut. There were many miners in Walsgrave at that time, so the Lock-out hit the village hard. Vera had to go back to work as a skilled weaver at Cash’s, and Seymour took over the housekeeping and looked after the children. He and the other colliers could only earn money from tree-cutting up at the Coombe, a wooded area on the adjoining Craven Estate around Coombe Abbey, between Binley and Walsgrave. The miners earned a little money from the timber they cut, and they caught rabbits, pinched the odd pheasant and were given scraps from the Abbey kitchens, bowls of dripping and left-overs from banquets held there, which Seymour would bring home. However, Lord Craven was himself in financial difficulty, and eventually committed suicide by jumping off a ship in the middle of the Atlantic. The miners in the Warwickshire Coalfield were not too badly paid at the start of the Lock-out, as the pits they worked in were generally not as difficult to mine as in some of the older pits in other coalfields. However, they supported the call from the Miners’ Federation for solidarity with those working in ’difficult places’ in other coalfields. Nevertheless, when they went back in the winter of 1926/7, they also had their wages cut. Following the return to work, victimised miners from the south Wales valleys began arriving in the village with all their possessions and their whole families on carts. Vera and Seymour helped them to move in and settle as neighbours, and eventually to become leaders of the lodges and social clubs. Walsgrave Hospital stands today in the grounds of what was once the old Walsgrave Hall. It was almost two hundred years old when it was demolished in 1962 to make way for the hospital, but during the early part of the twentieth century the Wakefield family lived there, and owned a large amount of village property, including terraced houses rented by miners and other workers. Seymour’s family lived in a gardener’s cottage belonging to them. During the Miners’ Lock-out of 1926, many of these tenants could not pay their rent, and some never did settle their debts. However, they were not evicted.
By 1928 Seymour had earned and saved enough to make a down payment on a new semi-detached house with a bay window, next to Walsgrave School, at 21 School House Lane. Almost as soon as they moved in, their front room became the Headquarters for the Labour Party during the 1929 General Election campaign, and the bay window was full of posters. Of course, it was in a strategic position, next to the polling station, the Village School, and so no-one could be in any doubt about Vera and Seymour’s allegiances.
Seymour and Vera in the/their seventies
Chapter Six: Growing up in Walsgrave in the Thirties and Fourties:
In July 1931, Daphne Gulliver was born to Vera and Seymour, their youngest of four children. She grew up at School House Lane, Walsgrave in the thirties, enjoying such local events such as The Walsgrave Show, a very big agricultural and horticultural event, at which her father won prizes for the vegetables he could now grow in his back garden, as well as on his allotment. The children made bouquets out of wild flowers to be judged at the Show. It was a show run by local farmers like Harold Green, whom the Gullivers had worked for, but it attracted farmers, showjumpers and other participants from far and wide. It eventually combined with the Kenilworth Show, and became the forerunner of The National Agricultural Show at Stoneleigh. As prosperity returned with a boom in Coventry, coal-miners’ wages also improved, though many chose to desert the pits for a cleaner, high-wage job in engineering in the City, especially in the car factories. Seymour stuck to his job at the colliery, however, because he liked the economic security that came with it, as well as the sense of comraderie. Although not a hard-drinker, like many colliers, he naturally liked to call into the pub for a much-needed pint on his way home after a hard shift at the coal-face. The Baptists frowned upon and shunned the pubs in the village, because there were many well-known heavy-drinkers, but they understood that it was natural for the miners to enjoy a drink together on the way home. The only problems in some families came on weekly pay days, when they received their wage in cash. On these days all the wives would send their children, and Daphne was one of these, to wait for their fathers and get their pay packets from them in case any of them might be tempted to donate too much of it to the pub’s profits! Every mother would send their kids to stand outside The Craven Arms and The Red Lion to collect the wages. This, of course, was more of a show of solidarity by the wives than an act of necessity, especially as the local publicans were strict about not serving those who had, in their opinion, had one too many.
When war broke out in 1939, the good spirit in Walsgrave continued. The most noticeable difference, at first, was in the availability of food, and rationing. There were queues for tomatoes, but the Co-op was fair to everyone, and the vegetable cart continued to do its rounds of the village. One day, Daphne went out with her mother to buy oranges, which were rationed to one per person per week. So, they could have five. A group of internees were going up the Lane to the farm at the top. Vera asked Albert, the vendor, for a knife and cut all five into pieces. She went over to the boys and gave each one a piece of orange. Daphne, being a child, protested, but she said, oh well, these lads are very young and they’ve been living off potatoes up at the farm, so they need that orange much more than you do. People were encouraged to produce their own food on their allotments. As well as growing vegetables, Seymour also kept pigs and poultry on his allotment along Woodway Lane. You could keep pigs during the war, but you had to have a permit to kill them. You could sell them to the authorities, but they did not pay very much for them. So Seymour decided to take his sow into hiding in their house when her time came. Daphne remembered these war-time pigs and piglets well:
…we had a litter of pigs, we decided we were going to have a litter, and then we had some sleeping quarters for these piglets, and when the time came, the wretched sow had all those little piglets on the hearth, and we were giving them drops of brandy, trying to revive them and keep them going. I think we saved about five.
But they got to be little suckling pigs and one of them wasn’t quite right. So they decided they were going to ‘knock this one off’. So Bill Gately worked up the abattoir and we persuaded Bill to come and knock this little pig off. They’d just gone up the garden, ’cause he was working all day so it was dark now, and the air-raid siren went. So, no-one dared shine a flash-light or anything and well, you can imagine these little pigs running and squealing all over the sty, and them trying to get hold of this particular one; and Bill was muttering and stuttering, you know. Well eventually we caught this pig and killed it quietly at the kitchen sink.
We had no permit, and then someone came around afterwards, knowing that we’d done this, and he asked, ’what did you do with the Tom Hodge?’ So Seymour says, ’what’s that?’, and they said, ’well, you know, its innards!’ Dad says, ’oh! We buried them up the garden’. ’Oh, oh dear!’ he says, ’the best part of the pig!’ Anyway, he comes back after a few minutes and says, ’well, if I know Seymour it won’t be buried deep!’ So he goes up the garden with his fork and forks all this up. Eventually, he took all these chittilings and well, of course, to anyone who likes chittilings…but it put me off pork for the rest of my life!
Daphne also remembered the first significant air-raids, and the first use of the communal shelter at the school. The Anderson shelters that people had put up in their gardens by the summer of 1940 had become flooded, so they had to go to the shelter at the school, which had been put there for the school children. However, as there were no day-time raids, it had not been used, and was still locked. The schoolmaster, Gaffa Mann, refused to open it, however. A pick axe had to be sent for to break the lock, and all the residents of School House Lane went in.
Though Walsgrave itself was of no military importance, Capability Brown’s huge landscaped pool at Coombe Abbey was in the German map books and was used as a landmark by the German bomber crews. The Rolls Royce Engine Factory at Ansty was less than a mile from this, manufacturing aircraft engines. There was also an aerodrome there, built before the war, and the then Rootes assembly plant at Ryton was only a few miles away on the same side of the city, with its shadow factory producing aircraft and military vehicles. Built after 1936, these factories did not appear on the Luftwaffe’s maps, hence the importance of incendiary bombs dropped around the outlying areas of the City, as well as on the city itself. The Germans were searching for the shadow factories on the ground, using the Coombe Pool as a focal point. Huge craters were left on the landscape around the village for many decades afterwards. Seymour described his arrest, as an ARP Warden, of a German pilot who had bailed out over Coombe Park, landing in the farm lane and breaking both his legs. Seymour had to use his bicycle to get the airman the mile or so to the village police station.
Cover collage from the 1983 book by Bill Lancater and Tony Mason
On the night of November 14th, Coventry was subjected to an eleven-hour sustained Blitz, giving the German dictionary the word Coventration as a synonym for blanket-bombing rather than lightning raids, which had been the previous strategy in attacking London and other regional ports. Daphne recalled the effect of the bombing of the city centre, three miles away, as they ran for the shelter:
We put up the cushions from off the furniture and put them on our heads and went running up the shelter. It was a bright moonlit night and tracer bullets were flying around like tracer bullets everywhere and the whole city was on fire. Everything was lit up like it was daylight; it was a most awesome sight and of course, for days afterwards, the burnt paper was coming down.
The School Log for 15th November echoes this description of destruction:
School reassembled – about only 130 were present – this is due to the results of a terrific 11 hour raid on Coventry and immediate neighbourhood. The Church Hut used for 70 to 80 infants had to be used as a home for the people who were bombed out of the city.
Seymour was on air-raid duty that night and recalled one bomb that fell in what was known as The Hollow, just past The Mount Pleasant. He said that the old, cruck-beamed cottage was quite badly damaged as the patrol went towards it, and he was sure there would be at least one person dead inside. But when they went inside they found that the main beam had fallen across the fireplace and the family were all protected by it, around the fireplace. No-one was hurt.
School records for 1940 show that a total of six hours and ten minutes was spent in the school shelter, with one visit lasting over two hours. Of course, nearly all the raids took place during night-time. Even the raid of the 14th/15th November was not detected until after 3 p.m., the end of the school day, and the bombing had ended in sufficient time for the school to open on time the next morning. Though the sirens went off earlier than usual that evening, most people recall being at home having had tea or supper when the bombing started. The schools nearer the centre were far more badly affected, and many of those rescued in these areas were still under rubble until about 7 a.m., having been trapped for more than twelve hours in some cases. Walsgrave escaped lightly compared with the mass destruction of the city centre and the older factory areas in the suburbs, though it might have been a different story had the Luftwaffe been able to locate the Ansty and Ryton factories. Many in the village realised this vulnerability, and though not forced to, sent their children away to safer rural areas, if they could. Daphne was sent away to relatives near Bridgwater in Somerset for a while. In addition to his ARP duties, being in a reserved occupation as a collier, Seymour took on responsibility for the Bevin Boys, the well-educated young graduates and undergraduates who were sent to work in the pits.
One of the few medieval buildings left standing after the 1940 Blitz, in Priory Row (painting by Rev. A J Chandler)
Chapter Seven: The Road from 1945 and Some Reflections on the Century
English: Photograph taken on 1 Feb 2007 of St Mary’s Church (side view), Walsgrave, Coventry, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the early part of the twentieth century, the most significant social division in the village was between Church and Chapel. This was sharpened by a dispute over a refusal to bury nonconformists in the parish churchyard, leading to the establishment of a cemetary on Sowe Common. The cemetary was near the canal, and Vera could remember Baptisms taking place there because there was no baptistry at the original Little Chapel from 1840 to 1902. By the time Vera and Seymour were married at the Chapel in 1918, it was well-established in the village, with a membership of keen spiritually-minded people, a good set of buildings…a minister of our own and a Manse for him to occupy.
A small, relatively poor community had achieved a lot in hard times. A real period of growth was enjoyed until the coming of the Second World War. Daphne remembered Sunday School Anniversary excursions to Hawkesbury, Lenton’s Lane, Potters Green, Shilton and Wolvey. For many children, these were the first occasions they had been outside the village, unless they had been into Coventry. However, the Nonconformist children sometimes found themselves in conflict at school, because, as Daphne explained:
..it was very much a Church of England School. The Conscience Clause used to be up on the wall…We used to be marched down to the Church on ’High Day’ and that was very nice and I never opted out of that but I could have done…You see, I was one of those wretched Non-Conformists. But I used to enjoy that. Well I took it upon myself one day, when Miss Florence Verrall, a school governor was there for assembly, to refuse to say the catechism. I don’t know why, because I knew it all, but my mother had told me I needn’t say this, it didn’t apply to me. I was very much frowned upon after that. I never did quite live it down. I never did like the village school, not many did, and I was glad to leave when I was about eleven. Gaffa Mann was the master. One of his sayings was ’spare the rod and spoil the child’. With Miss Verrall we all had to stand to attention when she came in, as she was a very important person.
Daphne also remembered the famous Rev. Howard Ingli James, the Welsh Minister at Queens’ Road Baptist Church in Coventry in the thirties and forties, preaching at Walsgrave Chapel. She described him as a Welsh ranter, a very famous socialist, and extremely funny. Walsgrave had the kind of pulpit in which you could walk up and down and he used to shake all his black hair into his eyes. There were marvellous harvest festivals after the war and everything was decorated. Then the produce would be sold off to raise money and there would be a concert to follow. The choirmaster was quite strict and if anyone wasn’t behaving themselves, he would throw a hymn book in their direction to bring them to attention.
The names on the village war memorial contained the names of many young people who gave their lives, but there were other losses sustained by the chapel.
After the war, the chapel was taken under the wing of Queens Road and the Rev Gordon Wylie, succeeding Rev H. Ingli James, brought the thirty-four year-old Rev Arthur J Chandler to Walsgrave from Wednesbury, Staffordshire (above right and below, with Daphne Gulliver), in 1948. In addition to overseeing Ansty and Shilton chapels, he helped to build up the Walsgrave congregation again.
English: War memorial (1914-1918) in Walsgrave, Coventry, England. St Marys church is in the background. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Daphne worked as a short-hand typist at the Ansty Factory after the war, using her bicycle to get up the farm lane on the other side of the Sowe and up the hill each day. In July 1952, she celebrated her twenty-first birthday with all the family in the School Hall next to where they lived. Her aunt Jessie asked her, ‘have you got a boyfriend?’ She said she’d had one, but she didn’t have one then, so Jessie asked her, ‘who’ve you got your eyes on?’ Daphne answered that the Baptist minister was often in their house and that her mother, Vera, made him cups of tea. His own mother, Emma, had died the previous year. Daphne married Arthur at Walsgrave Chapel the following summer, in the coronation year of 1953. Jessie went down into the village when she got married at the chapel, together with her husband, Tommy and her two foster children from Dr Barnado’s home. Tommy Gardner worked for forty-five years at the Austin Motor Carriage works in Holbrooks. For the last fifteen years they became caretakers for the Factory and lived on site, in a comparatively big house provided by the Austin factory. They didn’t have to pay rent or bills and so were much better off. Jessie recalled these years in the fifties and sixties with great affection. Although she had no children of her own, she fostered two children from the Barnado’s Home her husband Tommy had been in before the First World War:
That was the happiest part of my life, with two foster children. We were married for fifty years, and on our Golden Wedding Anniversary we had a big party with the Mayor and his wife there. But Tommy had not been well for some time, and that same night he died. After that I came to live in Jephson Court in Alderman’s Green Road.
In the late 1970s, Vera Gulliver wrote in the Walsgrave Baptist Church magazine that she was proud to have grandchildren who were seventh generation Baptists, keenly committed to Christ, and a nephew, Geoffrey Brown, who was a Deacon at Walsgrave Baptist Church.
Seymour and Daphne on a visit to south Wales in 1980
Following Arthur Chandler’s retirement and their move back to School House Lane in November 1979, Daphne continued to work for the National Health Service, as she had done in Birmingham since 1965. She became chief officer of the Coventry Community Health Council until her retirement and move to Shaldon in Devon in July 1991. She died following a tragic road accident while cycling near her home in Shaldon on St Andrew’s Day in 1993. At her funeral at the Baptist Church in Teignmouth, her cousin Geoffrey gave an oration and Daphne’s love of bicycles was highighted by the following reading from the stories she contributed to Walsgrave Remembered:
Tommy Hatfield had a sort of workshop and you could go up there and say you wanted a bike, and he’d measure you up for size and look through all these frames, and find one the right size. Then he’d dip it in acid, then he’d dip it in a stone enamelling vat. I suppose they were always black. He’d tell you which day he’d finish it, and then you’d come home riding your bike, pleased as punch. Lovely thing a bike. We didn’t go further afield than the boundary near Sowe Common cemetary.
Daphne was not buried on Sowe Common, like her parents. Instead, her ashes were scattered under the yew tree near the south door of St Mary’s Church. The ashes of her husband Arthur had been buried in a casket on the north side, overlooking the Walsgrave Road in the centre of the village which he drew and painted. He died of heart disease at Walsgrave Hospital on 28th February, 1985, aged seventy. Both their names are entered in the Book of Remembrance displayed in St Mary’s Church, Walsgrave. Jessie Gardner (née Gulliver) lived to be 102. In her recollections, recorded in 1992, she included the following reflections:
There’s a lot of the family scattered around. My niece, Julie, is in America, there’s a nephew in Australia, and a grandnephew in Hungary, all doing very well for themselves.
Give me these days now. I don’t think much of the old days. They were good for the rich, but not much good for the poor. I don’t know how many more years I shall sit here, looking out of this window, perhaps quite a few. One cannot tell from one day to the next.
So, they (the Gullivers and Tidmarshes) were good people and that’s where it’s coming out in these generations, because we came from good stock; honest, God-fearing workers. We all seem to be doing very well these days, after all these years. So, I can’t say much for the good old times that they talk about. I’m all for these times. Some things are better, some things are worse, I will admit. But, on the whole, we are looked after much better in our old age now.
Andrew J Chandler Kecskemét, Hungary, 2013.
P.S. Sadly, while re-editing this, my mother’s cousin, Geoffrey Brown, died suddenly, aged just sixty. He had bought Seymour and Vera’s house from me, and we were close during my years based in Coventry from 1986 to 1996. I was unable to attend his funeral in Walsgrave, so these chapters, featuring his aunt’s story as well as that of the Gullivers, are dedicated to him.
16 Crown Princess Juliana of the Netherlands gave birth to Beatrix Wilhelmina Armgaard.
25 The First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff wrote that the imperial fleet was so weak that the Navy would be unable to deal simultaneously with threats from Japan in the Far East, even in conjunction with the United States, and with aggressor nations in Europe.
16 Gracie Fields (Mrs Grace Selinger), awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in the New Year’s Honours List, was presented to the King at Buckingham Palace.
18 The The Midland Daily Telegraph reported significant overcrowding of the Coventry’s schools, carrying a major report, entitled, ‘Coventry as the Nation’s School’, claiming that in the previous twelve months children of school age from the Special Areas had been moving into the city at the rate of a hundred per month,
20 Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden resigned from the Cabinet over Mussolini’s role in the Spanish Civil War.
25 Lord Halifax became Foreign Secretary
6 Sinking of the rebel ship Baleares by torpedo off the coast of Cartagena, Spain; five hundred of the crew burnt to death, two hundred were rescued by British vessels & rebel ships.
11 Resignation of Austria’s Chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, under pressure from Hitler for Nazification of Austria.
12 German troops crossed the Austrian border without a shot being fired: Hitler annexed Austria.
14 Hitler arrived in Vienna, Vast crowds lined the streets to welcome him with cries of ‘Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer‘: Chamberlain spoke in the House of Commons, regretting what had happened.
16 The minutes of the Oxford Branch of the National Union of Vehicle Builders recorded details of a ‘stormy meeting’ at the Nelson Arms in Cowley about the ‘alleged poaching’ of NUVB members by the TGWU, in the trim shop of the Pressed Steel works.
24 Chamberlain told the Commons that Britain had no vital interests in Czechoslovakia.
28 Hitler gives full instructions to Henlein, the Sudeten German leader, on how to build up tension over their demands.
20 The Listener publishes a report, ‘Exiled in London’ by Miles Davies into the London Welsh, a transcript of his radio broadcast.
25 Agreement signed between Britain and Ireland (Eire).
3-9 Hitler & Mussolini met in Rome.
13 Konrad Henlein attended a tea party as guest of honour of Harold Nicholson MP, and four other Conservative MPs.
30 In another secret directive, Hitler decides ‘to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the near future’.
20 The Coventry Labour Party was accused of ‘dirty tactics’ in quoting a Conservative candidate in the local elections as claiming that Labour’s rise in the polls was due to ‘the sweepings of Great Britain’ coming to Coventry.
12 German mobilisation.
7 The Times published an article arguing that the Czechoslovak government should cede the Sudetenland to Germany. It is badly received in Prague (see documents below).
12 Hitler’s speech at Nuremberg demanding self-determination for Sudeten German minority in Czechoslovakia.
15 Chamberlain meets Hitler at Berchtesgaden.
18 Meeting between Chamberlain and the French Foreign Minister in London. The British government expressed its readiness to participate in a general European guarantee for Czechoslovakia, along with other powers.
19 Anglo-French proposals for the transfer of the Sudetenland presented to the Czechoslovak Government (see documents below).
21 Crowds gathered in Wenceslas Square in Prague. Police estimated 200,000 on the streets, protesting against Anglo-French initiative. Runciman sends his letter to the PM (see documents below) supporting Sudeten German demands to join the Reich.
22 Chamberlain met Hitler at Godesberg. Hitler demands the immediate transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany and the settlement of Polish and Hungarian claims on Czechoslovak territory.
23 The Godesberg talks broke down. The chiefs of Staff presented the Cabinet with a paper that stated that to take offensive action against Germany before placing their forces on a war footing would be ‘to place ourselves in the position of a man who attacks a tiger before he has loaded his gun.’
25 Czechoslovak government called up all men under 40
27 Chamberlain broadcast to the nation, stressing: 1) The fate of the Empire could not be decided by the plight of a small nation; 2) his deep personal commitment to peace, and 3) his conviction that any nation seeking to dominate through fear of its strength had to be resisted.
28 British fleet mobilised. Chamberlain addressed the House of Commons on the crisis and the negotiations with Germany. Towards the end of his speech, he received a message from Hitler agreeing to Chamberlain’s request for further talks with him and Mussolini.
29-30 Chamberlain met Hitler at Munich: Four-power Agreement between Britain, France, Germany and Italy, providing for German occupation of the Sudetenland by 10th October 1938.
30 Chamberlain returned to Heston Airport and reads the bi-lateral agreement between himself and Hitler signed that morning. The news was greeted by cheering crowds as he made his way to Buckingham Palace, where he later appeared on the balcony with the King and Queen.
The third Report of the Special Commissioner for the Special Areas, for the year ended 30th September 1938, was published. By September, seventy-two firms had been assisted to settle in the ‘Special Areas’, including fifty-one at Treforest, south Wales.
1 German troops entered the Sudetenland. Harold Nicolson attacked the Munich Agreement in a speech in Manchester.
2 Poland occupied Teschen, a rich industrial region, which it claimed as part of the Munich Agreement, and Hungary annexed a broad strip of southern Slovakia and Ruthenia.
3-5 House of Commons debated the Munich Agreement. Nicolson spoke on 5th.
18 The management at the Pressed Steel works in Cowley near Oxford, estimated that there were up to 3,000 members of the 5/60 TGWU branch, founded in 1934, at the works, and about 800 members of unions for skilled workers.
3 Oxford Trades Council minutes recorded details of victimisation of the TGWU shop stewards at the Pressed Steel works, leading to a strike,
15 The International Brigades were formally withdrawn from Spain late in 1938 as part of Prime Minister Juan Negrín’s attempt to win British and French support for his government. The last battle in which they participated was that of the Ebro. A farewell parade was held for the volunteers in Barcelona, Spain, on November 15, 1938.
1 Oxford Trades Council minutes recorded the failure of the strike at Pressed Steel, and further cases of victimisation.
Christmas: Jewish refugee boys from Germany and Austria arrive in London, from their base camp at Dovercourt, to spend the holiday with foster-parents. The continental clothes made them conspicuous among the London crowds.
Also in the year:
First British National Register introduced.
Queen Elizabeth, the liner, launched
Nylon first produced in Britain
Picture Post first published: These Tremendous Years, 1919-38 published (by the Daily Express?)
400,000 Anderson shelters manufactured for civilian use
Women’s Voluntary Service & Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Force founded
BBC began foreign broadcasts
Empire Exhibition in Glasgow
Holidays with Pay Act passed
England made record cricket score of 903 for 7 v. Australia
Among the plays of the year was Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green. Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Other films included The Prisoner of Zenda with Ronald Colman, The Lady Vanishes directed by Alfred Hitchcock and The Citadel directed by King Vidor and starring Robert Donat (see chapter two). Ironically, both the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Prague Philharmonic Orchestra visited Britain. Popular songs were ‘Blue Skies are round the Corner’, ‘The Lambeth Walk’ and ‘Whistle While You Work’.
Chapter One: ‘And Now What? – What Will He Grow up to?’
The picture post style publication, These Tremendous Years, 1919-38, published in 1938, concluded its chronicle with pictures of the panzer divisions that had raced through the night to reach Vienna a week earlier. “The first job of the new Chancellor”, the Nazi leader Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the journal reported, “was to ask the German army to help him keep order”. Hitler “received a tumultuous reception”, it concluded. On the next and final page, it featured a picture of a young British boy, about eight years old, and asked the question “AND NOW, WHAT – WHAT WILL HE GROW UP TO?” This publication clearly did not have the benefit of hindsight, and although uncertain of what the future might hold for the young Briton, there was no tone of ‘inevitability’ that he, like the whole of the European population, was well down the road to war. Indeed, had publication of the journal been delayed until the new year of 1939, the question might have been turned into a more certain and confident statement, following the events of the autumn of 1938.
Lionel Curtis, one of the leading lights behind ‘Chatham House’, the British Institute of International Affairs in 1920, when Harold Nicolson had first heard him speak, told Nicolson in the Spring of 1938 that the programme he was sponsoring for Germany would bring ‘twenty years of peace’ which ‘were worth any price’. Besides the Anschluss, ‘the package deal’ he proposed contained the provision of ‘cantonal status’ (autonomy) for the Sudetenland by the Czechoslovak government, recognition of Germany’s colonial rights, and of its economic interests in eastern Europe. It also conceded that Germany should be free to develop its armed forces to the extent that it would become the strongest power in central Europe. This was too much for Nicholson, whose ‘anti-German stance’ shocked Curtis. Harold emphasised his belief that Germany harboured ‘aggressive ambitions’ and would not support its economic designs on eastern Europe. He opposed the attempt of Curtis and others to appease ‘the strong’. However, he accepted that his views and talents as a new MP were not widely respected in the House. “1938 will decide” he concluded. However, as the international crisis deepened, his opportunity presented itself sooner than he had expected. On 15th February news reached London that, at Berchtesgaden, the Austrian Chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg had effectively handed over control of Austrian affairs to Germany.
Hitler took the Nazification of the German army and foreign policy a step further, “Adventurism is now in the ascendancy in Germany,” Nicolson declared to the Foreign Affairs Committee, advising his audience “to keep a stiff upper lip, not throw sops or slops around, wait, and, above all, rearm”. Privately, he suggested two days later that if Britain could play for time and “gain two years of peace, then we are almost home”. However, he added the caveat that “there is no doubt that Germany is out for Weltmacht and will carry that through with grim determination”. Three days after this statement, Anthony Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary.
Though Neville Chamberlain had little experience in foreign policy, he quite quickly established that his policy was not the same as Eden’s. His policy was what came to be known as ‘appeasement’. There was nothing new in it, of course, since every liberal-minded British politician and political commentator believed that the Versailles Treaty had been unjustly harsh on Germany and that more ‘give and take’ was required to to dampen the explosive situation on the continent. Eden was contemptuous of Italy and was pursuing a strong line on non-intervention, insisting that the Germans and Italians should take their promises not to interfere in the Spanish Civil War seriously. Chamberlain thought Eden was being inconsiderate towards Italy and set about conciliating Mussolini, including accepting Il Duce’s conquest of Abyssinia. In a meeting between the two of them and Grandi, the Italian Ambassador, he even took Grandi’s corner against his own minister. When Eden resigned, Chamberlain appointed Lord Halifax to replace him, since the latter had no objection to Chamberlain’s running the Foreign Office.
Eden’s resignation affected Harold Nicolson deeply, and he told the House that Eden had resigned over a matter of ‘great principle’. He lashed into Italy, “a country which has consistently, deliberately and without apology, violated every engagement into which she has ever entered”. His speech was well-received by Lloyd George and Churchill. Nicolson had little doubt that the PM was blindly leading the country into a diplomatic minefield. When Hitler proclaimed the Anschluss from the balcony of Linz Town Hall, Nicolson commented that it was an act, not of union, but of “complete absorption”. Depressed by the British Cabinet’s response, he emerged from the government benches as its leading critic. Chamberlain seemed less affronted by this deliberate breach of the Treaty of Versailles than by how it was accomplished, without diplomatic activity of any kind, a simple snatch. Harold characterised Chamberlain as an unintelligent “ironmonger” who would “allow Germany to become so powerful that she will begin to dictate to us”.
However, for the time being, the argument was lost. Chamberlain, as Nicolson himself well knew, had to play for time. The PM’s long years in government had developed his eye for detail, and he knew how unprepared Britain was for war. It had been estimated by expert advisers that, on the outbreak of war, the Luftwaffe would be able to deliver six hundred tons of high explosive over Britain every day, and that each ton was capable of killing sixteen people. That would mean that, in the first month of hostilities, 300,000 civilians would die in air raids. In the event, this estimate proved to be wildly wrong, since even with bases in France, the Germans were never able to approach this weight of bombardment, and the death rate per ton turned out to be one person per ton. However, people feared the unknown effect of bombing and gas attacks. By comparison, they cared little about the Anschluss. Austria was barely viable as a country after its separation from Hungary and their joint Empire, and the Austrians, after all, were German-speakers. If they wanted to join the Reich, that was their right. For diplomats and politicians, Austro-German relations were not a matter for those countries alone, as Chamberlain himself acknowledged to the House of Commons. He deplored the use of force, but what more could be said or done? Reports suggested that, on the whole, German troops had been well received and that Hitler was popular in his homeland. How could Britain come to the aid of a country that did not want to be saved, or to survive as a separate state. Besides which, he had had no troops to deploy to stop the invasion, although he could not admit this openly. Only a few days before, however, debating the Army Estimates, the Commons itself had come to a general consensus that Britain did not need a large continental army. Some MPs had even been puzzled as to why Hitler thought he needed one, but now they had a very clear answer to their somewhat naive question.
Nevertheless, Spain remained an issue, and Nicolson chose to speak out forcefully against Franco’s renewed offensive, challenging the House to imagine Gibraltar falling to him, and its straits coming under Mussolini’s control. However, all he could suggest to an exasperated Chamberlain was the occupation of Minorca. This revived fears of a Mediterranean War between Britain and France on the one hand, and Italy and Nationalist Spain on the other. The Spanish war gave Germany cover for its ambitions in central and eastern Europe and the ideological issues involved divided popular opinion in both Britain and France. Soviet intervention, through the supply of arms to the loyalists, sowed the seeds of mistrust towards Soviet intentions in the east and had a direct bearing on the Sudeten crisis, since President Benes feared the danger of civil war breaking out in Czechoslovakia. In addition, as A J P Taylor wrote later, the Spanish Civil War “did much to prevent national unity in Great Britain and France” and “drove a further wedge between Soviet Russia and the Western Powers”. Moreover, the psychological effects of the civil war were breaking down the resistance to the idea of another war, creating the feeling that Europe was already on the brink of another general conflict. Soon after his exchange with Chamberlain in the House, Nicholson was forced to resign as vice-chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. In the second half of April, he went to the Balkans with the British Council, to assure the people of central Europe that Britain would stand firm against any attempt by Germany to take over Mitteleuropa. He now believed, with sound justification, that should Germany strike again in central or south-east Europe, Britain would not stand by these countries, but would rather stand aside while Hitler took them into his Reich.
We now know that Hitler had confirmed his intention to take control of Czechoslovakia, first in the Hossbach Memorandum of 5th November 1937. There is no need to make exaggerated claims for the importance of this document, but it does confirm Hitler’s long-term intentions, originally set out in Mein Kampf, to take control of both Austria and most of Czechoslovakia, without war if possible, but through force if favourable circumstances arose, as he thought they might in the early Spring of 1938. Throughout the winter of 1937-8, Hitler had not been talking timetables, but had been thinking tactics out loud. However, this did not mean that he had committed himself to securing Lebensraum by force. This determination did not come until at least a year later, following his directive to his staff to be ready to attack Poland after 1st September 1939, issued on 3rd April of that year.
Neither did the Sudeten crisis suddenly arrive on the agenda of western diplomats following The Anschluss. If anything, Hitler had intended to try his will, and theirs, over the Sudeten question before his takeover of Austria, which he believed would happen at some point without much effort on his part, perhaps later rather than sooner. He was prepared to wait for an opportune moment, which, in the event, came sooner rather than later. The Sudeten question needed more careful nurturing, however. Czechoslovakia was a creature of three of the Paris Peace Treaties of Versailles, St Germain and Trianon, It was very much an experimental, multinational state, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been, except that it was also supposedly democratic. It was in border disputes with all its neighbours and was divided internally along ethnic and religious lines. Many British diplomats were concerned about the Prague government’s treatment of minorities, especially the Sudetens, which received a good deal of sympathetic treatment in the British press.
The Sudetenland, an area of eleven thousand square miles in northern Bohemia, lies to the east of a mountain range which forms not only a natural and strategic barrier between Germany and Czechoslovakia, but also a vital link in the encirclement of Germany after the Paris ‘Settlement’. As such, it was especially important to the French, with a very strong line of fortified defensive positions holding the ring with their western defences along the Maginot line. It had recently been fortified, and Benes was often criticised as being a tool of French foreign policy. It was populated by almost three million ethnic Germans who, before 1919, had been part of the German Confederation. This ‘fringe’ of mountain territory had been given to Czechoslovakia to form a defensive barrier at its western end, in defiance of the principle of self-determination. From the beginning of their incorporation, the Sudetens had complained that the Prague government discriminated against them on religious and cultural grounds. This discrimination worsened during the economic depression of the thirties, so that Nicolson realised that although the independence and integrity of Czechoslovakia was in Britain’s interest, this aim could only be secured if the Czech government could be persuaded to address the Sudeten grievances. This could then be “coupled with assurances that if they do we will protect their future”.
Henlein in Sudetenland with Dr. Wilhelm Frick. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One reason for the acceptance of Sudeten German claims by British diplomats and politicians, such as Nicolson, was the personality of Konrad Henlein, their leader. A few days after the Anschluss Hitler, his financier, had told him to raise his demands to a degree unacceptable to the Czech government, which he did in a speech at Karlsbad on 24th April, demanding full equality of status between Germans and Czechs, full autonomy for the Sudetenland, including the right of Sudeten Germans to to support the domestic and foreign policies of the German Reich, and the complete revision of Czech foreign policy. However, he claimed only to want justice and a measure of autonomy when he visited London in May 1938, and even Churchill was taken in by his performance. At Nicholson’s tea party for Henlein and four other Conservative MPs , the Sudeten leader told his hosts, in German, that he sought no more, but no less, than cantonal autonomy for his people, so that finance, foreign affairs and defence in the hands of the Prague government. The only alternative he could see would be war between Germany and Czechoslovakia. Nicholson made it clear that Henlein should not return home with the impression that “not a single British soldier would fight for the Czechs” , but rather that “on his shoulders rested the grave responsibility for avoiding a second European War”. Little did Nicholson know that the day before this tea party Henlein had been in Berlin, receiving further instructions on how best to dupe the British.
Hitler did not need to prepare for a second general European war because he believed he had already developed an alternative military strategy to the war of attrition which the first had been. This was characterised by Blitzkrieg; short, limited, intensive wars to bring about a speedy victory, first against Czechoslovakia in 1938, and then against Poland a year later. Finally, he would then be ready to take on Soviet Russia. The key to understanding Hitler’s policy was that for him, war was not an alternative to diplomacy, but an extension of it. Conversely, if he could gain territory by diplomacy, so much the better for the conversation of military resources for when he would have to fight. From the autumn, if not the spring and summer of 1938, Hitler was waging an undeclared war in which all means – diplomatic, economic and military – were deployed to achieve his stated aims.
By August, the ‘screaming’ for justice of the Sudeten Germans had reached such a fever pitch that Chamberlain sent Walter Runciman to investigate the situation. The Czechs resented this, feeling that it placed a question mark against their entitlement to the Sudetenland, but Chamberlain made it a condition of Britain’s continuing support for them that Runciman be allowed to finish his investigation. He stayed until September, by which time the demands of the Sudeten Germans, prompted by Hitler, had been stepped up to such an extent that only a “transfer of territory” as The Times put it, would satisfy them. So, the stage was set for Chamberlain’s dramatic gesture. He became convinced that if he did not act there would be a rising in the Sudetenland, and Hitler would declare that he could not simply stand aside. So, on 13th September, he wrote a brief personal note to Hitler, soliciting a swift invitation. Both the Cabinet and the country were startled, since, at that time, British PMs did not usually fly off suddenly on diplomatic missions. That, calculated Chamberlain, was why Hitler would be impressed. The journalist René Cutforth painted a contemporary’s retrospective picture of this:
So began the most macabre of all the Thirties spectaculars: the spectacle of Mr Chamberlain, with his umbrella and his winged collar and his thin smile, flying about through the skies of Europe like some great black stork of ill-omen, smoothing Hitler’s path, and all with the best of motives.
Harold Nicolson followed the unfolding drama with mounting concern but also, at times, with sighs of relief. He knew that Chamberlain had “no conception of world politics”, and was quite unsuited to conclude a successful negotiation. Yet such was the general fear of war that when Chamberlain set out on 15th September for Berchtesgaden to confront Hitler, the first of his three flights to Germany, Nicholson felt “enormous relief”, tinged by shades of “disquiet”. “I shall be one of his most fervent admirers if he brings back something which does not constitute a Hitler triumph”, Harold wrote. When he arrived at Berchtesgarden, Chamberlain was met, among others in Hitler’s entourage, by the young German General Keitel, no doubt calculating how many panzer divisions he would need to penetrate the Czech defence system along their equivalent of the Maginot line. Mr Chamberlain was there to give them a safe pass through that line, so that they would no longer need to fight their way through difficult terrain. The gentler hills and plains of Bohemia beyond would then be exposed, and his divisions could be in Prague within days from their new border.
In his first conversation with Hitler, therefore, Chamberlain made no serious attempt to keep the Sudetenland inside Czechoslovakia. Stressing his opposition to the use of force, the PM confined himself to the question of how the transfer would take place. So Hitler agreed not to act precipitately, allowing Chamberlain to return home and consult his Cabinet as well as the French. He was acclaimed in London and allowed himself to be portrayed as having headed off an invasion. In his report to the Cabinet, he stated that while yielding on the principle of self-determination, he had not gone beyond this point. He made the same point in his meeting with the visiting French minister on 18th. He suggested that Britain would stand ready to guarantee the borders of the rump Czechoslovak state which would survive.
Harold Nicolson’s sense of relief had been short-lived. It was clear to him now that Chamberlain “didn’t care two hoots whether the Sudetens were in the Reich or out of it” and that he had brought back the bones of an agreement which were bare indeed, ceding to Germany the Sudeten German areas, provided the cession be achieved peacefully. Anglo-French pressure mounted on the Czechs to accept the ceding arrangement. The Times concluded that ‘the terms submitted to the Czechoslovak Government could not. in the nature of things, be expected to make a strong primae facie appeal to them’.
The only obstacle to an agreement, Chamberlain now calculated, would be if Hitler advocated the claims of the other minorities, including the Hungarians, for to concede to these would make the survival of Czechoslovakia impossible. When the PM arrived in Bad Godesberg on 22nd September, he was therefore disappointed to find that this was exactly the issue which the Fűhrer now raised. Moreover, Chamberlain could not understand why Hitler seemed so anxious to occupy the Sudetenland immediately. Added to this, Hitler showed him the map he had had drawn up showing the areas to be ceded, which included areas with Czech majorities. Angered by these tactics, Chamberlain broke off the negotiations and returned to London. He knew he would have difficulty in gaining Cabinet support for Hitler’s more intransigent terms, but was even more convinced that not to do so would result in a general European war, given the strident tone with which they had been put forward.
There was also a shift in tone in Britain, at least among the political élites, when Chamberlain returned empty-handed. The novelty of his flights was beginning to wear off and his stance was increasingly seen as one of ubiquitous obsequiousness. However, both his party and public opinion remained firmly behind his peace efforts. The hard-liners now grouped around Churchill, including Harold Nicholson, knew they had an uphill struggle to persuade the country to change course diplomatically, so they decided that they should “rally behind” Chamberlain while pressing for the formation of a Coalition Government to prepare the British people, the Admiralty and the Fleet and for war. In Green Park, outside Churchill’s apartment, trenches were, in any case, already being dug. In his radio broadcast later that evening, Chamberlain commented, “How terrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying out gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”.
As Chamberlain entered the House of Commons on 28th September to brief it about the negotiations, he met with two very different reactions. Many of his own supporters rose to their feet and waved their order papers. The opposition remained silent and seated, as did Churchill’s group. Hitler had convinced him, said Chamberlain, that he was willing to risk a world war for the sake of the Sudeten Germans. At this, Nicholson reported, “a shudder of horror passed through the House of Commons”. At 4.12 p.m., Sir John Simon tugged at the PM’s coat, passing him a note from the Foreign Office. Chamberlain’s sombre discourse came to an abrupt halt as he read, and then announced triumphantly that Hitler had just agreed to postpone his mobilisation for twenty-four hours and to meet with him, Mussolini and Deladier in Munich. The House erupted in a great roar of cheers, the whole performance reminding Nicholson of “a Welsh Revivalist meeting”. In the Foreign Office itself, there was a ditty circulating, mocking the PM’s servile and senile shuttle diplomacy: “If at first you can’t concede, fly, fly again!”
However, it was Chamberlain’s naivety rather than Foreign Office cynicism which matched more exactly the mood of the country as he flew to Germany for a third time. Britain was suffering from a mild panic in the summer of 1938. The air-raid precautions, the sandbagged buildings, the trenches in the royal parks, soldiers suddenly visibly in uniform and in authority everywhere, officials of new quasi-governmental organisations ordering people about, so that they seemed like ‘little Hitlers’: all these visible and audible signs of war were seen as sinister. The Press and the newsreels showed pictures which exaggerated the effects of air-raids, so that it was widely believed that half a million people would be killed on the first day of the war. The precautions reassured no-one, but rather confirmed their worst fears.
When Chamberlain flew to Munich on the 29th of September, he was given a tremendous sen-off. Sixteen ministers were at the airport to wish him well, together with the High Commissioners of Canada, Australia and Eire. As he climbed into the aircraft, there was a great cheer. Meanwhile, there was a story going around the Continent that Haile Selassie of Abyssinia had written to the Czechoslovak President, Benes: “I hear you are receiving the support of the British. You have my profound sympathy.”
At Munich that evening, the French and British did not resist any of the German territorial claims, except to ask for plebiscites in doubtful areas. They even agreed that the Germans could take control of some fortified areas immediately, so that the Czechs lost not only their defensive system, but also most of its heavy equipment. They were excluded from the conference and were simply informed of its results afterwards. One of their ‘observers’ was reported as telling a French delegate: “When your time comes, you will ask, ‘where are those two million Czechs who might have been fighting with us?’ They couldn’t even destroy their own military installations along the northern frontier; they simply had to hand these over to the Germans. In its annexe, the agreement called for the settlement of Polish and Hungarian claims, in addition to guaranteeing the new borders of Czechoslovakia. This ‘guarantee’ was never ratified by any of the powers.
Hitler and Chamberlain each signed a separate document declaring that their countries would never go to war with each other. Later, Hitler was reported as saying: “Well, Chamberlain seemed such a nice old gentleman, I thought I would give him my autograph as a souvenir”. Waved by Chamberlain on his return, this document procured so ecstatic a reception that one disenchanted observer said, “I thought they were going to grovel on the ground in front of him”. He had, as he put it, quoting Shakespeare, plucked the flower safely from the nettle danger. In the euphoria of the moment, it seems that he believed this. The strain on him personally had been immense and he had shown remarkable resilience for a man of his age. Chamberlain’s own account of his rapturous return reads:
“Even the descriptions in the papers give no idea of the scenes in the streets as I drove from Heston to the Palace. They were lined from one end to the other with people of every class, shouting themselves hoarse, leaping on the running board, banging on the windows and thrusting their hands into the car to be shaken. The scenes culminated in Downing Street when I spoke to the multitude below from the same window, I believe, as that from which Dizzy (Benjamin Disraeli) announced peace with honour sixty years ago.”
Whether or not he really believed that he had really achieved a long-term ‘peace with honour’, Chamberlain did not stop, or slow down his government’s rearmament programme. Despite the apparent euphoria which greeted his ‘triumphant return’, just a few days after Munich a poll revealed that very few people believed that Hitler would keep his promise. It was no longer a realistic question if war would break out, simply when it would come. For the next few months, Britain was in a kind of dream-like state in which people did what they had always done, mesmerised by fatalism. But, at least, the year was allowed to end without further diplomatic ado. There were signs that he was looking to the future and playing for time. As a Midland industrialist, he knew that the shadow factories being built on the outskirts of Coventry and other cities would need time to attract sufficient labour to swing into full production. Housing had to be found for these workers. As Minister for Health and Local Government a decade previously he had developed a detailed knowledge of every locality in the country, and could now put that to good use in planning the war effort. He had persuaded Hitler to put his name to a document in which he had at least agreed to consult before taking any further action. His word was on trial. He had staked his premiership on achieving the Munich Agreement. He may well have hoped that it would last and bring about lasting peace in Europe, but, if not, at least Britain would be readier in September 1939 or 1940 than it was in 1938.
Sir Robert Vansittart advised Harold Nicolson to forget the past and concentrate on bringing people together to meet the next danger. Nevertheless, Nicolson voted against a resolution of the National Labour Executive pledging support for the PM. Unfriendly letters began appearing in the Leicester newspapers attacking him for his disloyalty. Despite this, he remained uncompromising in his criticism of the government’s foreign policy after the Munich Agreement. In the Parliamentary debate which followed, he spoke with great authority, for in 1919 he had served on the committee that had laid down the Sudetenland frontier. Hitler, he stated, had three objectives: to swallow the Sudeten Germans, to destroy Czechoslovakia, and to dominate Europe. “We have given him all these three things”, he asserted. He would have met the first of these demands, though with ‘unutterable sadness’, for the Sudetenland ‘was not worth a war’, but Chamberlain’s total capitulation on this point had set off a chain reaction that would lead to total surrender on the other two. “The essential thing”, he put forward, “the thing which we ought to have resisted, the thing which we still should resist; the thing which I am afraid it is now too late to resist is the domination of Europe by Germany.” He spoke of “this humiliating defeat, this terrible Munich retreat” as “one of the most disastrous episodes that has ever occurred in our history”. He characterised Chamberlain’s ‘bit of paper’ supposedly bringing ‘peace with honour’ as ‘a little after-dinner extravaganza’. The so-called ‘guarantee’ of Czechoslovakia’s new borders was ‘the most farcical diplomatic hypocrisy that was ever perpetrated’. Nicholson’s speech was followed by other powerful speeches by Churchill and Duff Cooper, who had resigned from the Cabinet, but the government was given a huge majority, declaring its confidence in the appeasement policy by 366 to 144. The opposition case was weakened by its lack of new ideas to pose as realistic alternatives. In November, the Nazis instigated their pogrom against the Jews, Kristallnacht. It was harshly criticised by enlightened British opinion. Harold feared what the New Year might bring and labelled it ‘This Year of Destiny’. His faith in Chamberlain’s judgement was at an all-time low. ‘What would you have done if you had been in Chamberlain’s place at Munich?’ he was asked. He retorted:
I should never have allowed myself to be manoeuvred into so impossible a position. I should not have acclaimed myself as having brought peace with honour. I should have got out of that aeroplane, slowly and sadly, and I should have said, ‘we have avoided war, but at the price of honour. There is no cause for rejoicing’.
Historian Keith Robbins has written, “Munich has always been seen as the apotheosis of appeasement in action”, pointing out that it was Chamberlain’s behaviour over the whole three weeks of the Sudetenland Crisis which gave the entire strategy of appeasement a bad name. Although he may have had the best of intentions, his zeal was humiliating for Britain. He was outplayed by Hitler on almost every point. That has been the verdict of posterity, with the benefit of considerable hindsight. At the time, however, as Vanttisart had pointed out, the question of the policy’s justification depended on what happened next.
Daily Express (?), (1938), These Tremendous Years, 1919-38: A History in photographs of life and events, big and little, in Britain and the world since the war.
Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.
René Cutforth (1976), Later than we thought. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.
Open University (1973), Between Two Wars: A Third Level Course, War and Society, Block VII Units 19-20 (The Origins of World War II). Bletchley: OUP.
Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement (second edition). Oxford: Blackwell.
Appendix To Chapter One: Documents & Discussions
The Duchess of Atholl, Searchlight on Spain (1938):
British Naval Strength, much greater relatively to Germany’s than in 1914, should be able to prevent the passage of any more arms from Hamburg or other German ports to Spain. A combined British and French fleet in the Mediterranean should be able to prevent many Italian reinforcements from reaching General Franco…
Unless, indeed, the Fascist Powers wish a European war here and now, a rapid flow of arms to the Republicans plus the possibility of a Franco-British blockade, might induce the aggressors to withdraw at least part of their armed forces. If the Spaniards were at last left to fight it out, a loyalist victory would be assured, and a heavy blow would have been dealt to aggressive dictators. A new hope of peace would dawn for Europe.
….If Spain be allowed to pass under Fascist control, the dictators will have won the first round of the game, and the succeeding ones will be infinitely hard, and more costly, to wrench from their hands.
Is it not clear, then, that whatever our next move may be, the first, if we are not to be parties to an appalling tragedy and to a terrible blunder, must be to abandon the so-called Non-Intervention policy and restore to the Spanish Government its right under international law to buy arms?
A correspondent for The Times living in Prague in 1938 gave this account of the reaction in Prague to The Times article of the 7th September:
Everywhere I went in Prague during the next few days I was pounced upon by officials, diplomats and journalists. I could shake very few of them out of their treasured opinion that ‘The Times’ was the direct voice of the British Government….Given the standing and great influence of ‘The Times’ in those years… I knew the damage would be at least as great as if the article had been inspired directly by the Government…. The article was a signal that Chamberlain had allies…
Geoffrey Dawson (the editor) was of course in sympathy with Chamberlain and Halifax… His deputy editor… was carried forward by a burning mission to save the world from another war… Like Halifax, he told me more than once that Germany was ordained to the exert influence over central and eastern Europe…
(I McDonald, A Man of the Times, Hamish Hamilton, 1976).
Newsreel, September 1938:
The Gaumont-British newsreel, transcript, reporting on the scene at Heston Airport, 15th September 1938:
The hour of need has found the man, Mr Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister. Since he took office Mr Chamberlain has never wavered in his determination to establish peace in Europe. At the hour when the dark clouds of war hung most menacingly above the world of men, the Prime Minister took a wise and bold decision. Well may we call him Chamberlain the Peacemaker. Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, was at Heston to see the Primier off on this epic-making flight to Germany, the first flight he has ever made. We know that no man could do more than he, but since we also know that it lies not in the power of mortals to command success, we say with all our hearts, ‘May God go with him! Three cheers for Chamberlain!…
The Anglo-French proposals were presented to the Czechoslovak Government on 19th September 1938:
The representatives of the French and British Governments have been in consultation today on the general situation, and have considered the British Prime Minister’s report of his conversation with Herr Hitler. … We are both convinced that, after recent events, the point has been reached where the further maintenance within the boundaries of the Czechoslovak State of the districts mainly inhabited by Sudeten Deutsch cannot, in fact, continue any longer without imperilling the interest of Czechoslovakia herself and of European peace… both Governments have been compelled to the conclusion that the maintenance of peace and the safety of Czechoslovakia’s vital interests cannot effectively be assured unless these areas are now transferred to the Reich…
(Correspondence Respecting Czechoslovakia, Miscellaneous 7, (1938) pp 8-9).
Lord Runciman had been asked to report on the German Sudetenland question for Chanberlain. He did so by letter on 21st September:
My dear Prime Minister,… The problem of political, social and economic relations between Teuton and Slav races in the area which is now called Czechoslovakia is one which has existed for many centuries… I have much sympathy, however, with the Sudeten case. It is a hard thing to be ruled by an alien race; and I have been left with the impression that Czechoslovak rule in the Sudeten area for the last twenty years, while not actively oppressive and certainly not ‘terroristic’, has been marked by tactlessness, lack of understanding, petty intolerance and discrimination, to a point where the resentment of the German population was inevitably moving in the direction of revolt…
Local irritations were added to these major grievances. Czech officials and Czech police, speaking little or no German, were appointed in large numbers to purely German districts; Czech agricultural colonists were encouraged to settle on land transferred under the Land Reform in the middle of German populations; for the children of these… invaders Czech schools were built on a large scale; there is a very general belief that Czech firms were favoured as against German firms in the allocation of State contracts and that the State provided work and relief for Czechs more regularly than Germans. I believe these complaints to be in the main justified… the feeling of the Sudeten Germans until three or four years ago was one of hopelessness. But the rise of Nazi Germany gave them new hope. I regard their turning for help towards their kinsmen and their eventual desire to join the Reich as a natural development in these circumstances.
(Correspondence Respecting Czechoslovakia, Miscellaneous No. 7 (1938), pp. 3-5)
The Times correspondent in Prague described the atmosphere of crisis as it developed around Wenceslas Square on the 21st September:
… the people of Prague decided… to take a direct hand in events. Very quickly crowds began to gather… At first they stood about in threes and fours, reading the papers and arguing. Some larger groups were mainly young men and girls, shabbily dressed. Soon men and women came in hundreds, then thousands, filling the square. They began by seeming wholly bewildered. Many were weeping. ‘What fools we were to spend such money on frontier defences’, I heard one man say, but few followed that line. ‘We don’t need any more guarantees,’ said another, ‘we want aeroplanes.’ A well-dressed woman stopped, guessing that I was British. ‘Each night,’ she said in a cultured voice, ‘I pray that Heaven may punish France for her treachery and Britain for her blindness,’…
Still without anyone giving orders the crowds began moving out of the bottom of the square, shouting and singing the national anthem… In front of the Hradcany Palace the people called again for General Syrovy, the highly popularInspector General of the Forces, to take over and for all concessions to be stopped. Then the shouting changed. It took on a deeper meaning that caught one’s breath. ‘Tell us the truth. We want the truth.’ It was a sovereign demand…
(I McDonald, A Man of the Times, Hamish Hamilton, 1976)
The second demonstration was on the 25th September, following the announcement of the call-up of all men under forty:
It was announced at 10.20 p.m. … In ten minutes the whole of the broad boulevard, which had been as bright as Piccadilly with moving cars, became dark, as a mass of men, walking shoulder to shoulder the whole width of the thoroughfare, passed on to the station. In place of the noise of trains and cars all one heard was the heavy swish and slur of hundreds of shoes. Some women walked with the men, the older ones tearful, the younger ones proudly holding on to the arms of their fathers and husbands. ‘Well, it had to come. We won’t let those German brutes through.’…
The Terms of the Munich Agreement, 29th September, 1938:
Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy… have agreed on the following terms and conditions… governing the said cession:
1. The evacuation will begin on 1st October
2. ….the evacuation… shall be completed by 10th October, without any existing installations having been destroyed…
4. The occupation by stages of the predominantly German territory by German troops will begin on 1st October… The remaining territory of predominantly German character will be ascertained by… international commission forthwith and be occupied by German troops by 10th October.
5. The international commission will… determine the territories in which a plebiscite is to be held…
6. The final determination of the frontiers will be carried out by the international commission…
7. There will be a right of option into and out of the transferred territories… A German-Czechoslovak commission shall… consider ways of facilitating the transfer of population…
(Documents Respecting Czechoslovakia, Miscellaneous No. 8 (1938), pp. 3-4)
Newsreel, October 1938:
The Sudetenland Crisis was the first major crisis covered by the newsreels: British newsreel companies co-operated with the German Ministry of Propaganda to provide massive coverage of Chamberlain’s three visits to Germany, providing the cinema audience with a diet of mounting excitement. The now famous newsreel of Chamberlain’s return from Munich on the 30th September is both the climax of the media campaign and historical evidence of its result. Here is the transcript:
(on-screen caption: PEACE INSTEAD OF WAR)
(On-screen caption: ONE MAN SAVED US FROM THE GREATEST WAR OF ALL, fading into film of Chamberlain at Heston Airport)
… So our Prime Minister has come back from his third and greatest journey and he said that “the settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. (cheers)
“This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name on it as well as mine. Some of you, perhaps, have already heard what it contains, but I would just like to read it to you: (cheers)
” ‘We, the German Führer and Chancellor, and the British Prime Minister, have had a further meeting today and are agreed in recognising that the question of Anglo-German relations is of the first importance for the two countries and for Europe. We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with each other again.’ ” (cheers)
There was no sign of British reserve as the crowds fought to get near the Premier’s car. As we travelled back with Mr Chamberlain from Heston we drove through serried masses of people, happy in the knowledge that there was no war with Germany. (cheers)
The Premier drove straight to Buckingham Palace; here he was received by the King while London waited. And history was made again when their majesties came out on to that famous balcony with the Prime Minister. (‘Land of Hope and Glory’)
Posterity will thank God, as we do now, that in time of desperate need our safety was guarded by such a man: Neville Chamberlain.
(Gaumont-British, October 1938)
Meanwhile, there was a third demonstration in Prague, as the news from Munich filtered through on the 30th September:
It is something any westerner would wish he had not seen. Munich had happened. Threatened with immediate war with Germany, and told by Britain and France that Czechoslovakia would be left to founder alone unless she submitted, Dr Benes and his ministers surrendered. Long sleeplessness and hours of browbeating from friends and allies had brought them… to a state when they were long past coherent thought. So Czechoslovakia was to be broken up. The people came onto the streets, again in their thousands, but this time weeping with grief, rage, shame and exhaustion.
Spontaneous demonstrations continued over the next days:
One morning I saw a large number of men and women in the Old Square around the statue of Jan Hus, burnt for his faith in 1415: they had been drawn there by a common impulse yet they could say nothing, only sit there, their eyes streaming, and their faces working.
Under the title, Two Incompatible Worlds, Professor Arnold Toynbee, who himself visited Hitler, described the mental gap between the dictators and western statesmen:
An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany… and the outbreak of war… had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey … that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.
(Survey of International Affairs, 1938, Volume II: The Crisis over Czechoslovakia, ed. R G D Laffan, with an introduction by Arnold J Toynbee, Oxford University Press, 1951)
On 17th March, 1939, Chamberlain made a speech in his home town of Birmingham, looking back on his decision to negotiate with Hitler:
… When I decided to go to Germany I never expected that I was going to escape criticism. Indeed, I did not go there to get popularity. I went there first and foremost because, in what appeared to be an almost desperate situation, that seemed to me to offer the only chance of averting a European war… the first and the most immediate object of my visit was achieved. The peace of Europe was saved;… Nothing that we could have done… could possibly have saved Czechoslovakia from invasion and destruction. Even if we had subsequently gone to war and… been victorious in the end, never could we have reconstructed Czechoslovakia as she was formed by the Treaty of Versailles.
But I had another purpose, too, in going to Munich. That was to further the policy which I have been pursuing ever since I had been in my present position – a policy which is sometimes called European appeasement… If that policy were to succeed, it was essential that no Power should seek to obtain a general domination of Europe; but that each one should be contented to obtain reasonable facilities for developing its own resources, securing its own share of international trade, and improving the conditions of its own people… it should be possible to resolve all differences by discussion and without armed conflict. I had hoped in going to Munich to find out by personal contact what was in Herr Hitler’s mind…
When I came back after my second visit I told the House of Commons of a conversation I had had with Herr Hitler, of which I said that… he had repeated what he had already said at Berchtesgaden – namely, that this was the last of his territorial ambitions in Europe, and that he had no wish to include in the Reich people of other races than German…
… And lastly, in that declaration which he and I signed together at Munich, we declared that any other question which might concern our two countries should be dealt with by the method of consultation…
(Documents Concerning German-Polish Relations, Miscellaneous No. 9, 1939)
In 1953, Duff Cooper, a critic at the time of Munich, wrote about Neville Chamberlain in the following terms:
… He had never moved in the great world of politics or finance, and the continent of Europe was a closed book. He had been a successful Lord Mayor of Birmingham, and for him the Dictators of Germany and Italy were like the Lord Mayors of Liverpool and Manchester, who might belong to different political parties and have different interests, but who must desire the welfare of humanity, and be fundamentally reasonable, decent men like himself. This profound misconception lay at the root of his policy and explains his mistakes.
(Duff Cooper, Old Men Forget, 1953)
Questions for Discussion & Debate:
Use the chronicle, narrative, photographs in the text, the documents in the appendix, and the gallery of photographs below to discuss and debate the following:
1. What impact did the Spanish Civil War have on the course of international relations?
2. How did the newsreel of the return of Chamberlain from Munich support his peacemaking efforts?
3. ‘A piece of film is not some unadulterated reflection of historical truth captured by the camera which does not require the interposition of the historian’ (J A S Grenville). Discuss, with direct reference to both of the Gaumont-British newsreels transcribed above.
4. Why was The Times article (7th Sept 1938) published, and why was its effect so considerable in Prague?
5. According to McDonald, how did the people of Prague react to the Sudetenland Crisis from 21st to 25th September?
6. What does McDonald’s eye-witness account add to the narrative account of the Sudetenland Crisis and the Munich Agreement?
7. How justifiable was Churchill’s statement (made to the Commons on 5th October) that ‘we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat’?
8. With reference to the narrative, and all the sources above, examine the view that appeasement was a noble and virtuous policy unsuited to dealing with a power like Nazi Germany.
9. Attempt a defence of Chamberlain’s foreign policy in 1938. In your defence, refer to the evidence from those opposed to the policy at the time.
10. In January 1938, the Chief of Naval Staff had written that the Royal Navy would not be able to deal simultaneously with hostilities from Japan and Germany. To what extent was appeasement a response to Britain’s wider problems of imperial responsibility, in which Europe took second place?
English: Sudeten German women welcome Hitler Česky: Sudetoněmecké ženy vítají Adolfa Hitlera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A woman in the Sudetenland greets incoming German troops with tears and a Nazi salute. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Sudeten German priests health arrival of German troops Česky: Sudetoněmečtí kněží zdraví příjezd německých vojsk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Sudeten German Freikorps Česky: Defilující jednotky sudetoněmeckého Freikorpsu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Sudeten German women welcome Hitler Česky: Sudetoněmecké ženy vítají Adolfa Hitlera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: The Sudeten Germans destroyed Czech name of the city Šumperk Česky: Sudetští Němci zamazávají český název města Šumperka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)