Archive for the ‘Women at War’ Category

Summer Storms Over Hungary (I): The Nazi Deluge of May-August 1944.   Leave a comment

The Introduction of ‘The Final Solution’ to Hungary:

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By 1944 it was clear that the Hungarians had backed the wrong side in the war, despite the extension of the country’s territories that its support for the Axis Powers had enabled since 1938. After their forces had been crushed on the Eastern Front fighting alongside the Germans, Regent Horthy had tried to manoeuvre a way out of the war. In March, however, when Hitler had learnt of Horthy’s plans, he forced the Regent to accept an occupation of the country and the application of the ‘Final Solution’ to Hungary’s territories through the deportation of the entire Jewish population, as enumerated in 1941, to Auschwitz.

 

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Four gas chambers were fully operation by 1943 and were working at full stretch by the time 437,000 Hungarians were brought there from early May and killed, within a matter of eight weeks, by early July. At the camp, between four and eight hundred people could be packed into huts that had originally been designed for forty-two horses, in which lice and flees were endemic.

SS Obersturmbannfuhrer (Lieutenant-Colonel) Adolf Eichmann led the special force that deported the Jews from Hungary.

He later boasted to one of his cronies that he would ‘jump laughing into his grave’ four his part in the deaths of four million Jews. In a 1961 diary entry after his conviction in Israel for genocide, Eichmann wrote, chillingly:

I saw the eeriness of the death machinery, wheel turning on wheel, like the mechanisms of a watch. And I saw those who maintained the machinery, who kept it going. I saw them, as they re-wound the mechanism; and I watched the second hand, as it rushed through the seconds; rushing like lives towards death. The greatest and most monumental dance of death of all time; this I saw.

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Ghettoisation, Deportation & Collaboration:

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Above: The Dohány Street Synagogue, at the centre of the Jewish ghetto in 1944-45.

On the morning of 3 April, British and American aircraft bombed Budapest for the first time since the beginning of the war. In response, the Hungarian security police demanded that the Jewish Council provide five hundred apartments for Christians who had been affected by the raid. Those Jews moving out of their homes were to be concentrated in apartment buildings in an area between the National Theatre and the Dohány Street Synagogue (above). The following day, 4 April, Sztójay’s minister László Baky and Lieutenant-Colonel László Ferenczy of the gendarmerie met to firm up plans for the ghettoisation and deportation of the Jews of Hungary. All Jews, irrespective of age, sex or illness, were to be concentrated into ghettos and schedules were to be would be set for their deportation to Poland. The few people who were still employed in armaments production or in the mines were temporarily spared, but only until suitable replacements could be found for them. Each regional office would be responsible for its own actions. The “rounding up” of the Jews was to be carried out by the local police and the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie units. If necessary, the police would assist the gendarmerie in urban districts by providing armed help.  It took until 16 April for the full directive and extensive explanations to be typed in multiple copies and sent to local authorities, but the ghettoisation had already begun on 7 April. The orders were marked “secret” and bore the signature of László Baky. He declared:

The Royal Hungarian government will cleanse the country of Jews within a short time. I hereby order the cleansing to be conducted district by district. Jews are to be taken to designated collection camps regardless of gender and age.

This was the basis on which the Hungarian government agreed that the Gestapo could organise the removal of the roughly 450,000 Jews from the provinces, but not the 200,000 from Budapest. It was Adolf Eichmann’s task to organise the liquidation of Hungarian Jews. Between 7 April 1944 and 8 July 1944, we know (from the meticulous records kept by Eichmann’s SS) that 437,402 men, women and children of all ages were forced to leave their homes, first herded in to ‘collection camps’ or ghettos and then transported to Auschwitz. They were to be transported in 148 long trains of cattle wagons. At the end of April,the Jewish leaders of Hungary, together with the Hungarian leaders of the Roman Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran Churches, in addition to the Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, received a detailed report about the deportation to Auschwitz, but kept their silence, thus keeping the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews and their Christian neighbours in ignorance, and enabling the success of Eichmann’s timetable. The reality that no one in the villages knew anything about the plan in advance of it being carried out is borne out by the testimony of the Apostag villagers detailed below. Few survived, and of those who did, even fewer returned to their former homes. Once gathered in the collection camps, they were effectively doomed to annihilation, even before they boarded the trains.

Allied Inaction:

Although it was logistically possible for the Allies to have bombed Auschwitz by air from Foggia in Northern Italy from early 1944, the decision was taken not to bomb a camp that the Allies had known since 1942 was being used for the systematic extermination of Polish Jews. While it was evident that the unmarked underground gas chambers and crematoria might well have escaped, it is argued that it might have been possible to bomb the railway lines running to and from the camp, and would anyway have been worth the attempt. French railway lines, stations, depots, sidings and marshalling yards were principal targets during the pre-D-Day bombing operations, after all. The possibility of killing large numbers of inmates was a major consideration, of course, but a much more regularly used argument was that the best way to help the Jews was to defeat the Germans as quickly as possible, for which the RAF and USAAF needed to bomb military and industrial targets instead. On 26 June 1944, the US War Department replied to a request from American Jewish organisations for the bombing of the Kosice (Kassa) – Preskov railway line between Hungary and Auschwitz by saying that it considered the most effective relief to the victims … is the early defeat of the Axis. By then, the opportunity to save the remainder of the Hungarian Jews from outside Budapest had telescoped to little more than a fortnight, since the last deportations were on 9 July and photo-reconnaissance, weather analysis and operational planning would together have taken longer than fifteen days. One historian has concluded that … Even if it had been successfully bombed, Jews would simply have been transported over a different route.

In any case, with the Allied Chiefs still concentrating on the battle for Normandy (Caen only finally fell on 9 July), the bombing of Auschwitz and/ or Kosice was not likely to get much high-level consideration. Nonetheless, the camp inmates desperately wanted the camps to be bombed, even if many of them would have been killed in the process. When the nearby IG Farben factory was attacked, killing forty Jews and fifteen SS, the inmates quietly celebrated.

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The first transports from Hungary to Auschwitz began in early May 1944 and continued even as Soviet troops approached. The Hungarian government was solely in charge of the Jews’ transportation up to the northern border. The Hungarian commander of the Kassa railroad station meticulously recorded the trains heading to Auschwitz with their place of departure and the number of people inside them. The first train went through Kassa on May 14th. On a typical day, there were three or four trains, with ten to fourteen thousand people on each. There were 109 trains during these 33 days through to 16 June, as many as six trains each day. Between June 25th and 29th, there were a further ten trains, then an additional eighteen trains between 5-9th July. By then, nearly 440,000 victims had been deported from the Hungarian towns and countryside, according to the official German reports. Another ten trains were sent to Auschwitz via other routes from Budapest, while seven trains containing over twenty thousand people went to Strasshof at the end of June, including two from Baja, on the lower Danube.

The Deportation of Rural Jewish Communities:

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The village of Apostag is in the County of Bács-Kiskun, occupying an area of thirty-two square kilometres, and with a population of just over 2,100. It is located close to the eastern bank of the River Danube, to the south of Budapest. It is both a village and a municipality. There has been a Synagogue in Apostag since 1768, by which time the Jewish population had developed into a sizeable, settled community, worthy of its own place of worship.  The Jews had first settled in this part of Hungary at the beginning of the Turkish occupation, following the Battle of Mohács in 1526.

By the end of the Great War and the beginning of the living memory of those giving oral evidence, there were some 2,300 inhabitants of the village and 104 Jewish families. Some of them owned land and some rented it, so not all the Jewish families were rich, and some remained quite poor. There were between one and three children in the families (smaller than the average ‘Magyar’ family). Twenty-four councillors were elected for the Village Council, one for each group of ten families. These representatives needed to be fairly wealthy landowners to qualify for election and the fact that twelve of these councillors were Jewish also shows how integral a part of the leadership of the village they had become.

One of these councillors, János, had joined the army in 1940 and was a soldier until 1948. He was only given leave once during this time, and this, crucially and perhaps poignantly, happened to be in May 1944. While he was at home, the Jewish families were taken away from the village. There is no evidence that anyone in the village, including ‘regular’ soldiers like János, had any prior knowledge of the Nazi deportation plan. Even if they had heard something, there were only two cars in the village in 1944, so there was no real possibility of escaping abroad in the days and nights before it was so rapidly and ruthlessly enacted. As it happened, János was surprised by the speed with which the Hungarian Gendarmerie and ‘Military Police’ came in and took the Jewish people to Kalocsa. No one knew where they were being taken, or how long they would stay there, or what would happen to them. They were told to gather what they needed and they had to leave this village. Two little girls, aged 9 and 11, were somehow left behind, and they were able to stay on for a while, but one day the soldiers came and took them to Kalocsa as well. He was able to talk with the Hungarian soldiers who said that they weren’t very happy to take the girls away, but they had to do this. In 1991, the surviving villagers recalled:

When the Jews had to leave this village, Anna saw a little girl in someone’s lap, crying, ‘don’t let me go away, I want to stay here’, but she had to go as well. Everybody had to leave this village. When the Jews had to leave the village, they didn’t want to leave their houses and were wailing at the walls. They were kissing the walls with their lips and caressing them with their hands. The children were crying. It was really terrible. Some of the Christian families who lived close to the Jews went to the Jewish houses to say goodbye, and it was a very sad event, such a sad thing that they cannot forget it.

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The Library in the Village House (former synagogue), Apostag, 1991.

All the witnesses agreed in their evidence that the village people who weren’t Jewish couldn’t do anything to save their Jewish neighbours. The villagers also told us how they had watched from the nearby woods, in secret disbelief, as the soldiers took the Jews away in May 1944. They went on carts from the village to Kalocsa, which although further south of Budapest along the Danube, was apparently used as an assembly point for the Hungarian Jews being sent to the concentration camps. The villagers all stated that they did not know this at the time. So, when the Jewish people were taken away from the village, nobody knew anything about where they would go. They went by horse and cart to Kalocsa, some with their non-Jewish servants driving, so unaware were they of the ghastly reality which awaited them. All anyone knew was that they would stay for a while in Kalocsa, but nothing else. Of the roughly six hundred Jews deported from the village, only six ever returned after the war, before emigrating.

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In total, 147 trains were sent to Auschwitz, where 90% of the people were exterminated on arrival. Because the crematoria couldn’t cope with the number of corpses, special pits were dug near them, where bodies were simply burned. It has been estimated that one-third of the murdered victims at Auschwitz were Hungarian. For most of this time period, 12,000 Jews were delivered to Auschwitz in a typical day. Photographs taken at Auschwitz were found after the war showing the arrival of Jews from Hungary at the camp (see above and below).

The devotion to the cause of the ‘final solution’ of the Hungarian Gendarmerie surprised even Eichmann himself, who supervised the operation with only twenty officers and a staff of only a hundred, including drivers, cooks, etc.

Very few members of the Catholic or Protestant clergy raised their voices against sending the Jews to their death. A notable exception was Bishop Áron Márton, in his sermon in Kolozsvár (now Cluj Napoca in Romania) on 18 May. But the Catholic Primate of Hungary, Serédi, decided not to issue a pastoral letter condemning the deportation of the Jews. By contrast, later that summer, when the fate of the Hungarian Jews became known in the West, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in a letter to his Foreign Secretary dated 11 July 1944, wrote:

There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world….

Churchill in France in 1944

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Above: Hungarian Jews from the Carpathian Basin continue to arrive at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.

Even so, in the summer of 1944, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry continued to defend its actions on The Jewish Question against the mounting international outcry against the genocide, led by the United States. According to the Hungarian government, the Hungarian nation was defending its own against the…

… greatest danger… a much greater danger than that presented to the white population of the USA by the negroes or the Japanese. As the Soviet army approached the frontiers of Hungary the defeatist propaganda and disruptive activity of the Jews had had to be stopped. They had therefore been segregated and set to useful work in Hungary and elsewhere. A large number of Jews had been transferred to Germany as a workforce, as had for years also been the case with Christian Hungarians.

The Rounding-up of the Roma:

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Above: Rounding up the Roma & a labour detail in 1944

The ‘Christian’ Hungarians referred to may well have been members of the Roma communities. Alongside the anti-Jewish actions, the Roma were also herded into labour camps in several counties, including Szolnok and Bács-Kiskun, which were established on some of the larger farms. In June, those Roma designated as unreliable were moved to special concentration camps within Hungary. These were established near the bigger provincial towns, and the settled Roma communities in Szolnok, Csongrád, Bács-Kiskun, Pest, Heves and Nógrád counties were moved to camps in Szekszárd, Veménd, Pécsvárad, Baja and Nagykáta. A sizeable number of Roma and Sinti ‘gipsies’, in the tens of thousands, were also sent to their deaths in Auschwitz and other camps.

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The Role of the Regency & the Reserve Corps in ‘saving’ the Jews of Budapest:

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The idea that any member of the Hungarian government, including the Regent (pictured left), was unaware of the scale and nature of the deportations is fanciful, to say the least, as is the idea that Horthy was responsible for stopping the deportations from the countryside and/ or the capital. It is true that Horthy ordered the suspension of all deportations on July 6, but by then the Regent was virtually powerless. This is demonstrated by the fact that another 45,000 Jews were deported from the Trans-Danubian region and the outskirts of Budapest to Auschwitz after this day. Domokos Szent-Iványi (below right), an officer in the Regency and a leading member of the Hungarian Independence Movement, wrote of Horthy’s motivation:

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The Regent’s idea was not to abdicate since that would end in the destruction of the lives of many thousands of people, first of all, Hungarian Jews. His old thesis was that he was still captain of the ship of State and that his duty was to remain on the bridge until the ship was saved or went down, of course with him, the Commander of the ship…

Macartney, a fellow British diplomat, recorded in his memoirs that:

Even the Jews have reason to be thankful that he decided as he did. He did not save the Jews outside Budapest (and it may well be that a more subtle politician or one less easily influenced, could have done more than Horthy did in this direction). But he saved the Jews of Budapest, and no other man could have done it…

Photo Sándor H. Szabó / MTI

Above: The Royal Palace on Castle Hill in Buda, which housed the Regency offices, facing the Parliament House and Government offices across the Danube in Pest; taken from Gellért Hill.

The Jews of Budapest itself, numbering about 230,000, had not yet been touched except that they had been required to move into Jewish Houses, but neither had they yet been saved. The negotiations between the Jewish leaders and the Germans were still going on. Although at one time Eichmann offered to suspend the deportations, or at least the gassings, pending the conclusion of a bargain, his price was far higher than anything which the Hungarian Jews could pay. Most of the negotiations concerned relatively small numbers – in the first place, only 750 emigrants for Palestine. Later, larger numbers were mentioned, partly in connection with a remarkable offer made by the Germans to trade the Jews for war material. The Allies rejected this, and in the end, the Kasztner-Brand negotiations brought the release of only a few thousand Jews. A few Jews bought their way out privately, and these included one group whose fate involved issues of nation-wide importance. These were the inter-linked families of the Weiss, the Kornfelds, the Chorins and the Mauthners, who between them owned not only the Weiss Manfred Works on Csepel, by far the biggest heavy industrial plant in Hungary, which alone employed over forty thousand workers, but also a very large number of other assets.

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Above: Map (with Hungarian legend) showing the extent of the ‘Holocaust of European Jewry’, 1933-45, with deaths shown as a percentage of the total Jewish population, the main centres of the Jewish population in 1933 (red spots and squares) and the main concentration/ extermination camps (black spots).

In the spring and early summer of 1944, those who were interested in what was happening to Jews throughout Eastern Europe had relatively broad access to accurate information, whether from Hungarian soldiers returning from the front, or from refugees escaping from Galicia into Hungary. However, the plain fact is that these pieces of information did not interest a significant part, perhaps the majority, of both the non-Jewish and Jewish population of Budapest. Hungarian Jews looked down on other eastern European Jews and were unconcerned as to their fate. In any case, open resistance on the scale seen in Warsaw seemed futile and their faith in Hungarian society was not completely dead. Samuel Stern, the leader of the Jewish Council in Budapest, had no illusions about Eichmann’s aims, as he later stated:

I knew about what they were doing in all the occupied countries of Central Europe and I knew that their operation was a long series of murders and robberies… I knew their habits, actions, and their terrible fame.

János Horváth (born 1921, in Cece, Hungary), was an economist, becoming an MP 1945-7, who then emigrated to the US where he became founder-President of the Kossúth Foundation in New York. He returned to Hungary in 1997 and became an MP again after 1998 when he recalled how the Budapest Zionists had…

… got hold of the Auschwitz testimonies written by two Slovakian Jews, who had been able to escape from the death camp in early 1944. (They) had it translated and sent to diplomats and Jewish leaders abroad and in Hungary, as well as to Regent Horthy’s daughter-in-law, Ilona. This was the first time… as late as spring 1944, when political leaders in Europe and America read authentic personal testimony about systematic Nazi extermination going on in Auschwitz.

The saving of most of the Budapest Jews was made possible by Horthy’s reserve corps, the élite armoured battalion of Esztergom marching on Budapest on 5 July under the command of Colonel Ferenc Koszorús, dispersing and disarming pro-Nazi ‘gendarmerie’ units. This was a direct result of Horthy’s stunned reading of the testimonies…

Five years ago, on the seventieth anniversary of the German occupation of Hungary, Frank Koszorús, Jr,  the Colonel’s son and a lawyer in Washington DC, founder of the Hungarian American Coalition and President of the American Hungarian Federation of Wahington DC, wrote a clear statement of the established ‘facts’ of the Holocaust in Hungary; in the March 2014 edition of The Hungarian Review, he recorded the following view of these associations on the events of 1944:

The American Hungarian Federation, representing a cross-section of the Hungarian American community, strongly supports historical accuracy, completeness and integrity… Considering the extent of the catastrophe of the Holocaust, great care should be taken to avoid actions that serve no purpose other than to open old wounds and needlessly exacerbate controversies. Care should also be taken to objectively discuss all aspects of a period and not abuse history for political purposes.

Considering these general principles, the Federation believes:

First, that any attempt to whitewash the catastrophe of 19 March 1944 – when Hitler occupied Hungary – and the ensuing deportation and murder of 550,000 Hungarian Jews or the involvement of Hungarian authorities cannot be tolerated.

… the Federation further believes that rescue efforts by non-Jewish Hungarians who stood up against evil, such as Col. Ferenc Koszorús who intervened with his loyal troops to prevent the deportation of the Jews of Budapest in July 1944, must not be omitted, denied, forgotten or minimised. Such rescue efforts must also be acknowledged, taught and remembered for the sake of historical accuracy and to serve as examples for this and future generations of how one should behave in the face of barbarism that characterised the Nazis and their collaborators…

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Map showing the ghettos, main concentration zones and deportation routes in Hungary.

The figure for the total death toll in the Holocaust quoted above takes account of the estimate that about half of the Jews of Budapest eventually became the victims of the ‘Arrow Cross’ Terror of the winter of 1944-45. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Holocaust, Congressman Tom Lantos, a survivor of the Holocaust himself who served as Chairman of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, publicly acknowledged the role of Colonel Ferenc Koszorús:

‘Colonel Koszorús’ unparalleled action (in July 1944) was the only case in which Axis powers used military force for the purpose of preventing the deportation of the Jews. As a result of his extraordinarily brave efforts, taken at great risk in an extremely volatile situation, the eventual takeover of Budapest by the Nazis was delayed by three and a half months. This hiatus allowed thousands of Jews to seek safety in Budapest, thus sparing them from certain execution. It also permitted the famous Raoul Wallenberg, who arrived in Budapest on 9 July 1944, to coordinate his successful and effective rescue mission…’

(Hon. Tom Lantos, ‘Ferenc Koszorús: A Hero of the Hungarian Holocaust’, Congressional Record, 26 May 1994.)

Himmler diaries

Above: Himmler and his journal.

In reality, the Sztójay government continued to ignore the Regent and rescheduled the date of deportation of the Jews of Budapest to Auschwitz to August 27th. What prevented the resumption was that the Romanians switched sides on 23 August 1944, causing huge problems for the German military, and it was on Heinrich Himmler’s orders that the cancellation of further deportations from Hungary was enacted on 25 August. Horthy finally dismissed Prime Minister Sztójay and his government on 29 August. By that time, the deportations from the Hungarian and sub-Carpathian villages had been completed, however.

The Jewish Council, Samuel Stern & Kasztner’s Train:

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In 2012, Zsolt Zágoni edited and published a notebook written in 1944 by Rózsi Stern, a Jewish woman who escaped from Budapest. Written in Hungarian, it was translated into English by Gábor Bánfalvi, and edited by Carolyn Bánfalvi. The notebook is of primary historical significance because it summarises, in forty-four pages of handwriting (published in facsimile), the events beginning from the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944 until the author’s arrival at Bergen-Belsen. It describes the general scene in Hungary, the looting of her family home, and the deportation of the Jews from Budapest. Rózsi Stern was the daughter of Samuel Stern. In March 1944, he was the leader of the group which was obliged to negotiate with Adolf Eichmann, the SS man in charge of the final solution in Hungary, about the fate of the Jewish community. Given the controversy surrounding these events, and Stern’s life, it could be seen as a controversial document. However, as Zágoni himself points out in his ‘Foreword’,

… the importance of the notebook is that an everyday person – realizing the extraordinariness of the events – decides to tell her story, her fate, and the dramatic days of her family’s life and the black weeks and months of in Hungary … while she tries to understand the incomprehensible.

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Rózsi’s account goes on to describe what happened to close relatives and neighbours in Budapest, as well as to the Jews in the countryside and provincial towns, where the Jews were first of all forced into ghettos and then deported or sent to forced labour camps as part of the army. Ghettos were then made in Budapest as well, and designated buildings were marked with a yellow star hanging on the front gate. In the best cases, friends and relatives were able to move in together, five or six of people to one room. Rózsi’s family had to move because their house was designated as a yellow star building, and they occupied his apartment on the first floor, though all the other Jewish people staying there were soon moved on to another apartment house. Together with their father, there were nine of them living in the apartment by June 1944. Her husband, Gyuri, decided they should leave for Palestine, but her seventy-year-old father could not be persuaded to leave his responsibilities, and Rózsi could not imagine parting with him and her mother’s grave. She would also have to leave her husband’s family, including her eighty-year-old mother-in-law. In the end, she decided to leave with her husband and daughter, accepting the place reserved for her on Kasztner’s Train. They were supposed to spend eight to ten days in a German camp outside Vienna and then travel through Germany and Spain to reach Palestine. The question was whether the Germans would keep their word and allow them to reach the Spanish border. The deportees on the Kasztner train numbered 1,684. Rózsa and Gyuri, her husband, were among the ‘privileged ones’ as she described them, those who ‘had a little hope to survive’:

One day my father told us that if we wanted to leave Budapest, there would be one more chance to make ‘aliyah’ to Palestine with the Zionists. This was the particular group I already mentioned. Gyuri, without any hesitation, decided to take the trip, even though this was also very dangerous. He couldn’t take all the stress and humiliation any more, or that so many of our good acquaintances had been taken into custody at Pestvidéki… We received news every hour: in Újpest and Kispest they are already deporting people, and on July 5th it will already be Budapest’s turn… In spite of the immunity that we were entitled through my father – and the protection of the German soldier who was ordered to live with us by the Gestapo (he was protecting us from the cruelty of the Hungarian gendarmerie) – Gyuri decided that we should take this opportunity and leave. 

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Above: Samu Stern’s memoir written in 1945, before he died on 9 June 1946, with his photo on the cover.

Despite this decision, they were still hesitating on the eve of their departure, 29 June, when ‘Mr K.’, Resző Kasztner, who started this aliyah, came to see them and brought news that forced them to make a final decision. He also tried to persuade ‘Samu’ Stern to leave, because, he said, “if there are no mice, there is no need for a cat either.” He reassured them that he had a firm promise that they would reach their destination and that the best proof of this was that he and his whole family would be going with this ‘aliyah’. Unlike his family, Samu Stern decided to stay in Budapest, and somehow survived the terror of the Arrow Cross rule of the winter of 1944-45. However, when the Soviet troops arrived, he was accused of collaboration. The police started an investigation against him, but he died in 1946 before his case could go to court. His activity in 1944, manoeuvring between cooperation and collaboration, is still controversial, as is that of Kasztner and Brand, but it is not the topic under discussion here. However, when considering the question of his anti-Zionism in relation to the potential for Jewish resistance, we need also to notice the total indifference of the Hungarian authorities in Budapest towards the fate of the Jewish population.

On 30 June, her father, accompanied by the German soldier who had been billeted with them, took them by taxi to the camp with their luggage. After two hours trying to ensure their safety, he left them at the internment camp, the synagogue on Aréna Street, which was already crowded with people, mostly those saved from the brick factories in the countryside. Finally, after an anxious day standing in the pouring rain, they boarded carriages ready to depart:

After a two-hour carriage ride, we arrived at the Rákosrendező train station – on the outskirts of Budapest – totally soaking wet. It was starting to get dark by the time we occupied the wagon that was assigned to us.The suitcases were piled up against one of the walls of the wagon, and the backpacks were hanging on nails all around. In the meantime, people from other camps arrived, so by the time everyone got on there were seventy-two of us in our wagon… The wagon was only supposed to hold six horses or forty people…

We were sitting on our blankets, as tightly packed as we could be. There were twenty-six… children in our wagon, including sixteen orphans with one guardian lady… It was a miserable scene, especially seeing so many mentally worn-down people. Some people tried to stretch out, which was almost impossible, and others tried to make room for their legs while they were sitting.  Little children were crying from fear and because of the unusual environment; the bigger ones were fatigued, sleeping and leaning on one another. The adults, worn out from the stress they had gone through, were arguing or weeping in silence.

Everybody was wondering how long we would be able to take this. And we took it, and even worse… The wagon had no toilet, of course, so our human needs could only be taken care of when the train stopped for awhile and we got permission to get off, which was not too easy either as the wagon was very high, so women and children could only get off and on with help and that could take some time… People jumped off the train like animals and shamelessly took care of their needs… because there wasn’t enough time to get farther away…

On Saturday July 1st at 10 a.m., we departed (from Ferencváros Station). We all rushed to the wagon’s only small window to wave a last goodbye to Budapest and everything and everyone that meant our life until now. Tears silently dripped down our faces and our hearts were broken from the pain. Maybe this was the last time we would ever see the Danube, the bridges, and the whole beautiful city where we were born and raised. The youth began to sing the “we’re going to find a new homeland” Hebrew song. Perhaps they will find it, but the older ones cannot be replanted.

The train moved at a quick pace to the border at Mosonmagyaróvár, arriving there at 6 p.m. During the night a baby girl was born, with the help of the doctors in the carriage. They stayed there for four days, built latrines, washed fully and washed their clothes, and bought provisions from local villagers. Their German guards protected them from the cruelty of the Hungarian gendarmerie. On 6 July the train was directed to Komárom and rumours spread that they were being taken to Auschwitz. However, they arrived at the station in the Vienna suburbs in the evening of 7 July and were then moved on to Linz by the next morning, having been told that the camps around Vienna were full. Here they were disembarked and disinfected, fearing that they were to be gassed. When they departed, having been thoroughly humiliated and terrorised by the guards, they had little idea where they were going or how many more nights they would spend on the wagon:

The train sped towards Hannover. We stopped one or two times because there were airstrikes., but this didn’t even affect us anymore. We had submitted to our fate and were totally indifferent.

We arrived on the 9th, a Sunday morning, at an improvised forest station near Hannover. It was a huge prison camp. We washed ourselves in big troughs and after an hour’s break, we sped further towards our destination, Bergen-Belsen.

A whole bunch of German soldiers were waiting for the train, holding enormous bloodhounds on leashes… They yelled their orders harshly. They counted us by putting us in lines of five. This took about an hour and a half in the strong afternoon sun, and we almost collapsed from fatigue. After this, we walked nine kilometres. Sick and old people and our luggage were carried on trucks… We reached an immense camp. There were prisoners here of all types and nationalities: Russian, Polish, French, Dutch, Hungarian and Jewish. Each barrack block was separated with wire fencing. We got block 11. When we arrived, everyone was registered, and then they assigned our accommodation. Men and women were separated… 

About 160 of us were placed in one barrack, as an average. It was a dark wooden building with one small window (without lighting in the evening) and three-level wooden bunk beds above each other. Lydia and I got bottom beds so I wouldn’t have to climb ladders. Between the beds there was just enough room to turn around. It was very sad to move in here, but we were so tired that we were happy to have the possibility to finally stretch out. However, this only happened much later. Once everybody had a bed, we received an order to line up… Lining up took place in the yard, with people grouped by barracks. The first lineup took two hours in the pouring rain, with us wearing thin summer clothes without hats…

The first dinner was next. They brought soup in pots. We stood in a line individually with the mess tins we were given. Unfortunately, no matter how hungry we were, we couldn’t swallow this slop. In the backpack we still had a little bit of food left from home, but we really had to be careful with that because our prospects were not very encouraging… we had to lie down wet, without blankets. It was a divine miracle that we didn’t catch pneumonia…

It is hard to imagine sleeping in these physical and mental conditions. Sometimes a child would start crying, suppressed sobbing and deep sighs, for the old life and loved ones we left behind. You could hear other people snoring, and the different emotional and physical manifestations of 160 people. There was not a single minute of silence. Crowds of bedbugs and fleas rushed to welcome us. However, towards the morning, sleep still overcame me because I was greatly exhausted.

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That is where the notebook ends. On 1 August 1944, Lídia (pictured above) sent a postcard, which still exists, from Bergen-Belsen to her fiancée,  in a labour camp in Northern Transylvania. It told him that she and her parents were ‘doing well’ and had ‘the best prospects’ of continuing on their journey. Apparently, a ‘Collective Pass’ allowing group border crossing, stamped by the Swiss Embassy in Budapest and signed by its Consul, Carl Lutz, was what eventually secured their onward journey and border crossing. After their round-about route to Bergen-Belsen and their horrific sojourn at the death camp, the refugees were then taken in two groups to Switzerland. One of these groups, comprising 318, including Rózsa Stern and her husband and relatives, arrived in Switzerland relatively quickly, while the other could only pass the German-Swiss border in December 1944. About a dozen people died on the way. Rózsi Stern (Bamberger) died in 1953, the year after her husband György.

Rezső Kasztner’s personal courage cannot be doubted since he returned from Switzerland to Nazi Germany to rescue more people before he himself emigrated to Palestine, where he was assassinated by Zionist extremists in 1957.

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(to be continued…)

Posted June 23, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Semitism, Austria, Axis Powers, Britain, British history, Castles, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Communism, Conquest, Deportation, Economics, Ethnic cleansing, Ethnicity, Eugenics, Europe, Factories, Family, France, Genocide, Germany, History, Holocaust, Humanitarianism, Hungarian History, Hungary, Integration, Israel, Italy, Jews, liberal democracy, manufacturing, Marxism, Memorial, Narrative, nationalism, Palestine, Papacy, populism, Refugees, Russia, Seasons, Second World War, Serbia, Technology, terror, Transference, tyranny, United Kingdom, USA, USSR, War Crimes, Warfare, Women at War, World War Two, Yugoslavia, Zionism

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Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: Part Two – Poetry, Remembrance & History.   Leave a comment

The Trauma of the War in the Twenties and Thirties:

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The traumatic effects of loss were also clearly visible on many inter-war politicians like Neville Chamberlain (seen here, on the right, in 1923, as the new Minister of Health and Local Government) and Anthony Eden, who on one occasion, had once sorted through a heap of dead bodies to identify them.

Like Chamberlain, Prime Minister in 1936-40, most Britons feared a repetition of the First World War, so the psychological trauma resulting from the sacrifices that it eventually involved was of a different order and type, including the fear of aerial bombing. As Arthur Marwick wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the Armistice, all war is…

… a matter of loss and gain: loss of life and limb and capital; gain of territory, indemnities and trade concessions. War is the supreme challenge to, and test of, a country’s military institutions, and, in a war of any size, a challenge to its social, political and economic institutions as well. War needs someone to do the fighting, and someone to furnish the weapons and food: those who participate in the war effort have to be rewarded. … War is one of the most intense emotional experiences… in which human beings as members of a community can be involved.

Arthur Marwick referred to a cluster of ‘sociological factors’ among the causes of the First World War, and historians have identified a similar set of causes of the Second World War, resulting from the effects of the First. What they had in mind were the psychological effects of the First World War, firstly the universal detestation and horror of war, and secondly the breakdown of accepted liberal values, a process which J. M. Roberts described as the shaking of liberal society.  In western Europe in the 1920s, this was a very real and painful process, working itself out into identifiable social, cultural and political effects. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) was a lament on the decadence of Western civilisation in which society had become ‘a heap of broken images’, a stained-glass window shattered into countless pieces that his poem attempted to put back together. The powerful wave of patriotism which had propelled Britain and France into the War had gone, and there was nothing to replace it.

C. E. Montague, a noted leader writer and critic for the Manchester Guardian was forty-seven when he enlisted in 1914, dying his grey hair to persuade the recruiting sergeant. After his return to England, he became disillusioned with the war and, in 1922, published Disenchantment, which prefigured much later critical writing about the war. He wrote of how, on 7 December 1918, two British privates of 1914, now captains attached to the staff, crossed the cathedral square in Cologne and gained their first sight of the Rhine, which had been the physical goal of effort, the term of endurance, the symbol of attainment and rest. Although the cease-fire order on Armistice Day had forbidden all fraternising…

… any man who has fought with a sword, or its equivalent, knows more about that than the man who blows the trumpet. To men who for years have lived like foxes or badgers, dodging their way from each day of being alive to the next, there comes back more easily, after a war, a tacit league that must, in mere decency, bind all those who cling precariously to life … Not everybody, not even every non-combatant in the dress of a soldier, had caught that shabby epidemic of spite. But it was rife. 

At the end of the 1920s, there was a spate of publications on the First World War. For example, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (1929) and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1929) had an important impact, and it was perhaps only in this 1929-35 period that the experience of the war was for the first time fully realised and digested. Allied to this growing ‘pacifism’ was a deep dislike for the old pre-1914 balance of power and alliance system, which many believed had brought about the war in 1914. The resulting loss of identity left the two Western democracies extremely vulnerable to attacks from the extreme right and extreme left at home and abroad. Just as in the approach to 1914, the ‘will to war’, so well exemplified in the literature of the time, helped to mould a climate of opinion in favour of war, so in the 1920s and 1930s a ‘will to peace’ developed which marked opinion in Britain, France and the United States which prevented an effective response to the threats posed by Italy, Germany and Japan.

In the 1930s, too, the writer Arthur Mee identified thirty-two villages in England and Wales that had not lost a man in the First World War. They were known as the “Thankful Villages”. In every other parish, there were widows, orphans and grieving parents; it is not an exaggeration to say that every family in the British Isles was affected, if not by the loss of a husband, son or brother, then by the death, wounds or gassing of someone near to them. And most of this slaughter had taken place in Europe, the birthplace of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and, in recent centuries at least, the world’s leading continent in science, medicine and philosophy. Something was still missing in the thirties, along with the lost generation of young men, who by then would have been husbands and fathers. Just as it took families years to assimilate their traumatic losses, so the nation took decades to do the same, as has been shown by America’s more recent struggle to come to terms with the Vietnam War. Then, at a moment when Europe might finally have comprehended the events of 1914-18, it found itself at war again.

The breakdown of accepted liberal values left Britain and France in a defensive, introspective state, ill-equipped to respond to the challenge of Fascism. But when the Nazis tried to bully and intimidate Europe into submission, it made people look at the war of 1914-18 in a new light. Somehow Hitler’s actions made the motives of the Germany of 1914 seem clearer and the First World War seem more justifiable. It also made the death of all those young men in the earlier war seem all the more tragic, since the Allied politicians of 1918-39 had thrown away what little the soldiers had gained. But the revulsion from war was so strong that although public opinion in Britain and France was changing after 1936, it took a series of German and Italian successes to bring about the fundamental shift in opinion which manifested itself after Hitler’s Prague coup on 14 March 1939.  Even then, the Manchester Guardian reported on 2 August that year, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War,  that a Nazi party newspaper had compared the economic situation then with the 1 August 1914, arriving at the conclusion that the western powers were not in as good a position as they had been twenty-five years previously.

Herbert Read (1893-1968) expressed some of these confused feelings in his poem, To a conscript of 1940, which he wrote soon after the beginning of the Second World War, as the title suggests. In an unusual mood he argues that the bravest soldier is the one who does not really expect to achieve anything:

TO A CONSCRIPT OF 1940

“Qui n’a pas une fois désepéré de l’honneur, ne sera jamais un heros” – Georges Bernanos (“He who has never once given up hope will never be a hero”).

 

A soldier passed me in the freshly-fallen snow,

His footsteps muffled, his face unearthly grey;

And my heart gave a sudden leap

As I gazed on a ghost of five-and-twenty years ago.

 

I shouted Halt! and my voice had the old accustomed ring

And he obeyed it as it was obeyed

In the shrouded days when I too was one

Of an army of young men marching

 

Into the unknown. He turned towards me and I said:

‘I am one of those who went before you

Five-and-twenty years ago: one of the many who never returned,

Of the many who returned and yet were dead.

 

We went where you are going, into the rain and mud;

We fought as you will fight

With death and darkness and despair;

We gave what you will give -our brains and our blood. 

 

We think we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.

There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets

But the old world was restored and we returned

To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud

 

Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.

Power was retained where powerhad been misused

And youth was left to sweep away

The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.

 

But one thing we learned: there is no glory in the deed

Until the soldier wears a badge of tarnish’d braid;

There are heroes who have heard the rally and have seen

The glitter of a garland round their head.

 

Theirs is the hollow victory. They are deceived. 

But you, my brother and my ghost. If you can go

Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use

In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved.

 

To fight without hope is to fight with grace,

The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired.’

Then I turned with a smile, and he answered my salute

As he stood against the fretted hedge, which was like white lace. 

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A column from the East Yorkshire Regiment marches into battle.

Read was born at Kirbymoorside, in the remote eastern hills of the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1893. He earned his living for some years as a bank clerk in Leeds, before becoming a student of law at Leeds University. He joined the Yorkshire Regiment, the Green Howards, from the University Officers’ Training Corps. He fought in France for three years with the regiment and won the MC and the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). He wrote many important books on prose style, art appreciation and other cultural topics. As a poet, he was a consistent admirer of the Imagists, who revolted against what they saw as the unreal poetic language of the Georgians, making use of precise, vital images. He wrote most of his poetry in the 1930s by which time the Imagists had achieved wide acceptance.

In Memorium – Unknown & ‘Missing’ Warriors:

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At the end of the war, the Empire’s death-roll had reached 900,000. More than two million were wounded. And it was only in January 1919 that another man died as the result of a bullet wound received in France in 1918, perhaps the last of the war dead. On Armistice Day, 1920, George V unveiled the Cenotaph, the “empty tomb”. It took the place of the temporary memorial that had been erected for the Peace celebrations in July 1919 (pictured above); Sir Edward Lutyens, who designed it, deliberately omitted any religious symbol because the men it commemorated were of all creeds and none. The concept of ‘ The Unknown Warrior’ was first suggested by J. B. Wilson, the News Editor of the Daily Express in the issue of 16 September 1919. He wrote:

Shall an unnamed British hero be brought from a battlefield in France and buried beneath the Cenotaph in Whitehall?  

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The suggestion was adopted, but Westminster Abbey, not Whitehall, was chosen as the resting place. Early in November 1920, the bodies of six unknown men, killed in action at each of the four battles of Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres were brought to a hut at St. Pol, near Arras. The Unknown Warrior who was to receive an Empire’s homage was chosen by an officer who, with closed eyes, rested his hand on one of the six coffins. This was the coffin which was brought to England and taken to Westminster Abbey where it was placed in the tomb of the Unknown Warrior on 11 November, in a service following the unveiling of the Cenotaph by King George V (shown above). The tomb was built as a permanent tribute to those soldiers who have no named gravestone. France, the USA and Italy also created similar memorials.

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Just before midday on 10 November, HMS Verdun, with an escort of six destroyers, left Boulogne with the Unknown Warrior. The destroyer Vendetta met them half-way with its White Ensign astern at half-mast.

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A Hundred sandbags filled with earth from France were sent over for the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The porters pictured below (left) reloaded the earth at Victoria Station. George V placed a wreath on the coffin (pictured right below), which rested on the gun carriage that took it from the Cenotaph to Westminster Abbey.

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Each evening at 8 p.m. traffic is stopped at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres for a ceremony where the Last Post is played. This bugle call was played at the end of each ‘normal’ day in the British Army but has taken on a deeper significance at remembrance services as a final farewell to the dead. The commemoration has taken place every evening (apart from during the Second World War) since 1928. The Memorial displays the names of 54,415 Commonwealth soldiers who died at Ypres and have no known grave. In 2018, a bugle found among the possessions of Wilfred Owen went on display at the Imperial War Museum. He removed it from the body of one of the men in his battalion who was killed in action before he was in 1918. British and South African soldiers numbering 72,203 who died at the Somme with no known grave are commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial within the site of the battlefield. A programme of building memorials and cemeteries had begun straight after the war, and there were soon over fifty-four thousand of them throughout the United Kingdom. Every sizeable village and town possesses one, at which wreaths of poppies are laid every Remembrance Sunday. The Newburgh War Memorial in Fife bears the names of seventy-six men from this small Scottish town who were killed. Their names are listed below:

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Because of the way men were recruited in 1914, in “pals’ battalions” drawn from particular towns and villages, some of these lost almost their entire population of young men. In these places, there was also almost an entire generation of women of widows and ‘spinsters of this parish’ who never married.

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The events of 1939-45 were commemorated more vigorously and immediately – in cinema and Boys’ Own narrative and, over a longer period and to a different end, by the persistence of Jewish community leaders and historians.

By the 1960s, a new generation began to look at the First World War in a new way. It was not the living memory of the First World War that had gone missing (there were, after all, plenty of not-very-old men alive to talk about it – as many did, to the BBC for its series in 1964); it was more that there did not seem to be a way of thinking clearly about it. The poetry of Ted Hughes expressed the spirit that also made books and plays and television programmes about the First World War fashionable in 1964. Hughes found in its soldiers’ admirable qualities a positive vitality and a violent power that he found lacking in modern urban life. At the same time, he believed in the essential goodness of our powerful instinctive impulses. It was in that sense that he found the war exciting, too different from the tragedies of nuclear warfare to be recognizable as the same thing. He once said that what excited his imagination was the war between vitality and death.

In the fifty years that had elapsed since Wilfred Owen’s death, his poems and those of Sassoon appealed to a smaller public than those of Brooke, but they did retain a degree of popularity. Then, in the sixties, their literary reputation grew steadily in the eyes of critics and scholars alongside their increasing popularity with the common reader. There were two reasons for this: firstly, in 1964 the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of war in 1914 triggered off a series of books, television programmes and stage shows that made the First World War a fashionable topic; secondly, the war in Vietnam seemed to repeat some of the features of the earlier war, such as its lack of military movement, and its static horrors for the private soldier.

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The first performance of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop production of Oh! What a Lovely War took place just before the fiftieth anniversary, at The Theatre Royal, Stratford East, on 19 March 1963, and then transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre, London in June of that year. In 1964 it transferred to Broadway. The original idea for the musical came from Gerry Raffles, Littlewood’s partner. He had heard a BBC radio programme about the songs of the First World War and thought it would be a good idea to bring these songs to the stage to show the post-World War Two generation that war was not the thing of glory that it was being presented as, at that time. Over a period of time, four writers were commissioned to write a script, but Raffles and Littlewood were unhappy with all of them and decided to give the acting company the task of researching into aspects of the War and then working these into improvised sketches that referenced the findings of that research. Joan Littlewood’s original production was designed to resemble an ‘end of pier’ show,  the sort of seaside variety in the style of music hall entertainment which was popular in late Victorian and Edwardian times. To this end, all her cast members wore Pierrot costumes and none wore ‘khaki’ because, as Littlewood herself put it, war is only for clowns. She was an exponent of ‘agitprop’, a method of spreading political propaganda through popular media such as literature, plays and films.

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A world war was not something that most of Littlewood’s younger audiences had experienced directly, except perhaps as very young children, though many were familiar with it through the experiences and stories of parents and grandparents, and would also have heard many of the songs used in the show. The ‘music hall’ or ‘variety show’ format was still familiar to many through the new medium of television, and the play was designed to emphasise that the war was about ordinary individuals who chose to wear the emblems of their country and make the ultimate sacrifice for it. From a historical standpoint, however, the play tended to recycle popular preconceptions and myths which all effective propaganda is based on. As a satirical ‘knees-up’ it seemed to acknowledge that the remembrance of the First World War had reached a cultural cul-de-sac. As a play which is designed to reflect the impact of the horror of modern warfare on the everyday life of the private soldier, it has its strengths as well as its limitations.

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Joan Littlewood, one of the most radical voices in British theatre in the sixties.

The villains of the piece are, clearly, the non-combatant officer classes, including the generals and the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ is one of the key themes of the play, but this has now been widely debunked by historians. Nevertheless, the First World War was, for the most part, a war of attrition in which huge numbers of men had to pay the ultimate price for military mistakes and minimal gains. In this sense, the play still does a useful job in encouraging audiences to consider for themselves the human cost of war and its impact on individuals. In 1969, Richard Attenborough marked his debut as a film director with his version of the play and, although most of the songs and two scenes from the play remain, the film version bears very little resemblance to the original concept. Despite its stellar cast, many see the film as a travesty of the stage show.

The Last Casualty on the Western Front:

On 11 August 1998, almost eighty years after the armistice, Lieutenant Corporal Mike Watkins of the Royal Logistics Corps was killed when a tunnel he was investigating at Vimy Ridge collapsed.  Watkins had been a bomb disposal expert in Northern Ireland and the Falklands and had carried out work left under First World War battle sites. As far as we know, he was the last casualty of that great conflict.

The Verdict of Historians – Finding a Language of Understanding and Remembrance:

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After a hundred years of commemorating the Great War, it may be that, belatedly, we have found a language and a way of understanding, or at least remembering in an informed and enlightened way, the real and diverse experiences of those lost legions. This has emerged from a dispute about what exactly, a hundred years on, we should actually be commemorating. The silence of the mid-twentieth century meant that, in the popular imagination, the witness of the poets loomed larger than some historians thought it warranted. One of Wilfred Owen’s best poems, by critical acclaim, was entitled Futility, but its use as a by-word for the First World War in popular culture has irked ‘revisionist’ historians. To put the debate at its simplest: on the one hand, there is a vein of literary writing that began with Owen and presents the experience of the War as so terrible, so unprecedented and so depressing that it stands outside the normal considerations of history. Professional historians disagree with this, and narratives influenced by this belief, including recent novels such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, are viewed by some historians as having failed to do justice to the average soldier’s devotion to what he believed, wrongly or rightly, to be a just cause.

As Britain began to gear itself up for the centenary commemorations in about 2012, a group of historians, including Margaret MacMillan, Max Hastings, Gary Sheffield and Hew Strachan, who disagree on many points, agreed on one purpose: that Britain should be weaned from its dependence on the “poets’ view”. They argued that the fact is that the majority of the British public supported the war and that Wilfred Owen went to his grave a week before the armistice with an MC for conspicuous bravery in pursuit of the justice of the cause he signed up for. The historians of the First World War also argued that idea that great powers “sleepwalked” into war is a misinterpretation: German militarism and expansionism needed to be curbed, and a war between Britain and Germany over the control of the seas became inevitable after the German invasion of Belgium and its threat to the Channel ports.

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Writing in the Sunday Times on 11 November 2018, Niall Ferguson (pictured above) seems to take issue with this view. He pointed out that to his generation (also mine) the First World War was ‘not quite history’. His grandfather, John Ferguson had joined up at the age of seventeen and fought on the western front as a private in the Seaforth Highlanders. He was one of the lucky ones who survived and returned, though not unscarred. He was shot through the shoulder by a German sniper. He also survived a gas attack, though his lungs suffered permanent damage. His most vivid recollection was of a German attack. As the enemy advanced towards them, he and his comrades were preparing for the order to go over the top, fixing bayonets, when at the last moment the command was given to another regiment instead. So heavy were that regiment’s casualties, that John Ferguson felt sure that he would have been killed if it had been the Seaforth’s turn. A fact that never fails to startle his grandson was that of the 722,785 men from the United Kingdom who did not come back alive, just under half were aged between sixteen and twenty-four.

Niall Ferguson has argued that the current generation of seventeen-year-olds is exposed to a different sort of enemy – ‘dangerous nonsense’ about the First World War. In the run-up to the Centenary Commemorations, he encountered four examples of this. The first of these he summarises as the view that… despite the enormous sacrifices of life … the war was worth fighting. Ferguson argues that an unprepared Britain would have been better off staying out or at least delaying its intervention. He counters with ten points that he would like all his children to understand in terms of what happened to their great-grandfather’s generation. First of all, the war was not “for civilisation”, as claimed on John Ferguson’s Victory Medal. It was a war for predominance between the six great European empires – the British, the French and the Russian against the German, the Austrian and the Ottoman. It broke out because all the leaders miscalculated that the costs of inaction would exceed the costs of war.

It was also a myth, he claims, that the war was fought mainly by infantrymen going ‘over the top’. It was fought mainly by artillery, shellfire causing 75% of casualties. The war-winning weapons were not poison gas or tanks so much as the improvements in artillery tactics, especially the ‘creeping barrage’ in the final offensive. Neither were the Germans doomed to lose. By mid-1917 the French were finished as an attacking force and German U-boats were sinking frightening numbers of the ships supplying Britain. With Russia consumed by Revolution, a German victory seemed possible as late as the spring of 1918. Certainly, their allies in the Triple Alliance were weak: Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. Their excessive use of submarine welfare in the Atlantic made American intervention likely. Fifthly, the Germans were at a massive disadvantage in economic terms. The Entente empires were bigger, the powers had bigger economies and budgets, and greater access to credit. However, the Germans were superior in killing or capturing their opponents. Overall, the Central Powers killed 35% more men than they lost, and their average cost of killing an enemy soldier was roughly a third of the other side’s.

According to Ferguson, the Germans ultimately lost because the British Army proved more resilient than theirs. Men such as John Ferguson simply would not give up, despite all the hardships they had to endure. Both patriotism and propaganda played a part in this, as did military discipline, but it also mattered that British officers were generally competent; that the average Tommy’s lot was made bearable by plentiful “plonk” and “fags”; that, despite high casualties, the bonds between “pals’ and “mates” endured. An eighth point he cites is that the German Army eventually fell apart during the summer and autumn of 1918 when it became clear that the resilience of Entente forces, bolstered by the arrival of the US troops made a German victory impossible. Beginning with the Battle of Amiens (8-11 August), the Germans lost the will to fight on and began to surrender in droves. Finally, the pandemonium with which the war ended with a series of revolutions and rebellions also brought about the disintegration of the great multi-ethnic empires, with only the Saxe-Coburgs surviving from among the royal dynasties of Europe. Communism seemed as unstoppable as the influenza pandemic which killed four times as many people as the war had.

In an article printed on the same day, Daniel Johnson echoes earlier historians in arguing that the Great War marked the moment when the nations of Europe first grasped the true meaning of total war. Every man, woman and child felt its effects. Johnson’s grandfather, an artist and teacher, never fully recovered from his service on the western front, where he was wounded three times and gassed twice. Most British families, he points out, had terrible stories to tell from the Great War. It afflicted not only those who fought and died, but also those who returned and those who remained behind. No-one who survived the slaughter could ever abide empty jingoistic slogans again. Conscription meant that one in four British men served in the forces, a far higher proportion than ever before. Almost everyone else was involved in the war effort in some way, and of the twenty million who died on both sides, there were as many civilians as soldiers. Women played a huge role everywhere, with the war finally settling the debate about women’s suffrage, although the vote was only granted to those with their own property, aged thirty and over.

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Australian troops at the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917

Sebastian Faulks first visited the Somme battlefield some thirty years ago. He was walking in a wood on Thiepval Ridge when he came across a shell casing. This thing is still alive, he thought, if you care to look. He went over to the huge Lutyens stone memorial and looked at the names of the lost – not the dead, who are buried in the nearby cemeteries, but of the British and Empire men of whom no trace was ever found, their names reeling up overhead, like footnotes on the sky. He wondered what it had felt like to be a nineteen-year-old in a volunteer battalion on 30 June 1916, waiting and trusting that the seven-day artillery bombardment had cut the German wire; not knowing you were about to walk into a wall of machine gun fire, with almost sixty thousand casualties on 1 July alone. He wondered if one day the experience of these youngsters might be better understood and valued.

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Gary Sheffield, Professor of War Studies at Wolverhampton University, believes that the Second World War was not an inevitable result of the ‘futile’ failures of the First. Rather, he thinks the two wars should be viewed as instalments of the same battle against German militarism, and that that struggle, in turn, should be seen in the longer perspective of European bloodshed going back through the Napoleonic campaigns to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48. The ‘poet’s view’ was epitomised by Henry James, who wrote that to see the static carnage of the Western Front as what the long years of European civilisation had all along been leading up to was “too sad for any words”. By contrast, the revisionist historian’s view is that the 1914-18 war was just another if egregious episode in Europe’s long-established and incurable bloodlust.

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But the public appetite for commemoration has been spectacular, and diverse over the past four years, in non-poetic ways. The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has awarded a hundred million to more than two thousand local community projects in which more than 9.4 million people have taken part. In addition, the efforts of 14-18 Now, which has commissioned work by contemporary artists during the four-year period, has led to the popular installations of the nationwide poppies tour, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, among other initiatives. Meanwhile, Philip Dolling, head of BBC events, reported that 82% of adult Britons had watched or heard some BBC Great War centenary programme, of whom 83% claimed to have learnt something. His colleague, Jane Ellison, thought the BBC’s greatest success had been with young audiences, helping them to see that the soldiers were not sepia figures from ‘history’, but young people just like them.

In researching for Birdsong, Faulks read thousands of letters, diaries and documents in the reading room of the Imperial War Museum. He remembered a buff file that came up from the basement, containing the papers of a private soldier on the Somme in June 1916. “There is going to be a big push,” one letter began, “and we are all excited. Don’t worry about me. Thumbs up and trusting to the best of luck.” Like most such letters, it was chiefly concerned with reassuring the people at home. But towards the end, the writer faltered.  “Please give my best love to Ma, Tom and the babies. You have been the best of brothers to me.” Then he gathered himself: “Here’s hoping it is au revoir and not goodbye!” But he had obviously not been able to let it go, and had written a PS diagonally across the bottom, “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be OK!” There was nothing after it in the file except a telegram of condolence from the king.

Ordinary men had been given a voice by the Education Act of 1870, providing them with an elementary schooling to the age of thirteen. Their witness was literate, poignant, but not ‘poetic’. It was authentic, unprecedented and, until recently, largely overlooked. But over the last forty years, they have been heard. Scholars of all kinds, editors, journalists and publishers have read, shared and reprinted their accounts; and the local activities funded through the HLF have uncovered innumerable different stories. They had not been missing; they were there all along, waiting to be discovered by ‘people’s remembrancers’. Faulks writes convincingly about their contribution:

The experience of the First World War was most valuably recorded not by historians or commanders, but by the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker. In what you can now discover in archives or online, there is no party line or school of thought. It was difficult to know how to value all this material, because what had been experienced for the first time by civilian-soldiers was not just any war… but the greatest bloodbath the world had ever seen. It was simply indigestible.

You cannot travel far in the history of war, especially 1914-18, before you stray into anthropology. What kind of creature could do these things? During the past hundred years, it is perhaps not only the events of 1914-18 but the nature of warfare and the human animal itself with which we have to grapple. That is the buried legacy of Kitchener’s citizen army.

Perhaps that is not just an anthropological question either, but a theological one, which is where the poets still make a valuable contribution. They also wrote letters, like those of Wilfred Owen as well as Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain, in which they questioned their hitherto-held beliefs in fundamental human goodness. Therefore the poets’ view is reconcilable with that of the ‘revisionist’ historians. Interestingly, in his ‘afterword’ to a recent new collection of war poetry in 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, Andrew Motion wrote that Wilfred Owen had shown how it was still possible for war poets to celebrate individual acts of courage and to commemorate losses, but not to glorify conflict as such. Owen’s maxim, true poets must be truthful, Motion maintained, had held firm through the years, even in wars which are generally considered ‘just’, such as the Second World War. It also applied even more in the case of Holocaust commemoration poems and to Vietnam, or the Gulf War of 1990, or, we might add, to the wars in former Yugoslavia. ‘Pity’ and ‘truthfulness’ remain the crucial ingredients even – or especially – when the realities of war are blurred by euphemisms, such as ‘friendly fire’ or ‘collateral damage’. The best war poets, he argued…

… react to their experience of war, rather than simply acting in response to its pressures. They are mindful of the larger peace-time context even when dwelling on particular horrors; they engage with civilian as well as military life; they impose order and personality as these things are threatened; they insist on performing acts of the imagination when faced with barbarism. In this respect, and in spite of its variety, their work makes a common plea for humanity.   

The varied commemorations of the past five years have also made it substantially easier for young people, in particular, to form their own ideas of what happened and what its implications for their lives may be. But historians are not simply ‘people’s remembrancers’, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out. Reconciling historians’ expectations of the centenary and the feelings of the general public has been challenging. It has been suggesting that with the passing of the centenary of the armistice, it is time to review the way we remember the Great War. First of all, Faulks argues, there must always be a sense of grief. The War killed ten million men for reasons that are still disputed, and it was the first great trauma in the European century of genocide and the Holocaust.

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According to the Sandhurst military historian John Keegan, the Battle of the Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered. Professional historians have their eyes trained on the long view, but they can be drawn back to the moment and to the texture of authentic experience of the nineteen-year-old volunteer in Kitchener’s army. But historians do not have a monopoly of memorial acts (I always hated the assumption that history teachers like me should, automatically, be responsible for these ceremonies). Peter Jackson’s new film, They Shall Not Grow Old is the director’s attempt to stop the First World War from fading into history, placing interviews with servicemen who fought over footage from the Imperial War Museum’s archive. The colourised footage is remarkable, immediately bringing a new dimension to images of the living and the dead; combined with the emotional testimony of the veterans it is an immersive experience and a powerful new act of remembrance that keeps the conflict’s human face in sharp focus.

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Sources:

The Sunday Times, 11 November 2018 (articles by Niall Ferguson, Sebastian Faulks & Daniel Johnson)

Alan Bishop & Mark Bostridge (1998), Letters from a Lost Generation. London: Little Brown (extracts published in The Sunday Times, November 1998 & The Guardian, November 2008).

The Guardian/ The Observer (2008), First World War: Day Seven – The Aftermath. (introductory article by Michael Burleigh; extract from C E Montague (1922), Disenchantment. London: Chatto & Windus).

E L Black (ed.) (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

Fiona Waters (ed.) (2010), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green (Herts): Transatlantic Press.

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester (West Sussex): Summersdale.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-1935. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (eds.) (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Arthur Marwick (1970), Britain in the Century of Total War. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Arthur Marwick & Anthony Adamthwaite (1973), Between Two Wars. Bletchley: The Open University.

Vera Brittain (1933), Testament of Youth. London: Gollancz (Virago-Fontana edn., 1970).

 

Posted December 2, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Australia, Balkan Crises, Britain, British history, Britons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, East Anglia, Education, Elementary School, Empire, Europe, Falklands, Family, First World War, Flanders, France, General Douglas Haig, Genocide, George V, Germany, Great War, Gulf War, History, Holocaust, Humanitarianism, Imperialism, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Jews, liberal democracy, Literature, Memorial, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Ottoman Empire, Population, populism, Reconciliation, Remembrance, Russia, Scotland, Second World War, Technology, terror, theology, USA, USSR, Warfare, Women at War, Women's History, World War One, World War Two, Yugoslavia

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Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: Part One – The Legacy of a Lost Generation.   Leave a comment

Introduction – Testaments of Torment:

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British sailors march through Whitehall in July 1919 past the temporary cenotaph to commemorate the end of the war.

The main effect of the first world war was a loss on a scale that exceeded the Holocaust, together with the traumas that matched it. As many as nine million combatants from all warring nations were killed in action, at an average of over six thousand on every day of the war’s four-and-a-quarter years’ duration. It was a hell of mud, blood, barbed wire and broken bodies, as vast rows of artillery thundered tons of hot metal on to each already churned-up square metre of earth, tree and human remnant. Spectral memories of the lost men haunted the gleaming white cemeteries, memorials and shrines that sprang up, from Melbourne’s shrine of remembrance to Whitehall’s cenotaph to the battlefield graves and ossuaries at Douaumont and Thiepval. The founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission calculated that if Britain’s war dead were to have marched past Edwin Lutyens’ austere London monument, it would have taken three-and-a-half days before the rearguard trooped by. There were also fifteen million permanently blinded, crippled or maimed, as well as many others whose minds were so damaged they would never recover their equilibrium, and I have written about these survivors elsewhere.

Here I want to concentrate on the psychological torments of parents who lost sons during the conflict, wives who lost husbands, children who lost fathers and sisters who lost brothers. One of those who lost both brothers and lovers was Vera Brittain. Her first world war classic autobiography, Testament of Youth, told the story of the ‘lost generation’ wiped out in the trenches. It was first published in 1933 and remained influential in the late twentieth century, being made into an excellent BBC Television drama in the late seventies. She lost a number of her closest friends as well as her fiancé and brother in the conflict.

Testament of War – Letters of Vera Brittain & Roland Leighton:

003At the heart of Testament of Youth was Vera Brittain’s own anguished love affair with Roland Leighton, the dashing best friend of her brother at Uppingham School. Their letters were published in 1998 and revealed the unbearable poignancy of their relationship. Roland’s first letter to Vera from Uppingham on 15 July 1914 demonstrates just how quickly the plans of young people changed that summer:

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed the two days you were here… You will let me know how you have got on in your exams, won’t you? I suppose I shall not see you again until October at Oxford.

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Roland Leighton

Vera replied from her parents’ home in Buxton (in Derbyshire) that she thought she had failed her Latin exam and so would not be able to go up to Oxford that autumn. On the 29th, Roland wrote back that he would not give up hoping to see her at Oxford that October unless he knew for certain that she had not passed when the results came out at the end of August. But less than a week after he wrote this letter, Britain declared war on Germany. Roland and Vera’s brother, Edward, who had been sent home early from their Officers’ Training Corps summer camp at Aldershot, attempted to find temporary commissions in the army. Roland then wrote to Vera from his mother’s home in Lowestoft on 21 August 1914:

I am feeling very chagrined and disappointed at present. I expected Edward has told you that I have been trying for a temporary commission in the Regulars. On Tuesday it only remained for me to go up for my Medical Exam. I got on very well until they stuck up a board at the end of the room and told me to read off the letters on it. . I had to be able to read at least half, but found I could not see more than the first line of large letters. The Medical Officer was extremely nice about it, … but it was of no use … PS: You may be amused to hear that I am engaged in cultivating a moustache – as an experiment.

Vera wrote back immediately to express her sympathy with him over this rejection, but felt it was for the best as he could now exercise his ‘intellectual qualities’ at Oxford; they would be of little use to him in gaining promotion in the Army. Two days later, on 27 August, she wrote again to inform him that she had, after all, passed her Latin. She was much relieved at this, as she didn’t know how she could have endured the thought of you and Edward enjoying Oxford life and myself cut out of it for another year. Roland confirmed that he was now expecting to go up so that all three of them would be at Oxford together. But on 28 September, with just ten days to go before the start of term, he wrote to tell Vera that he could no longer say confidently that he would be at Oxford after all. He stood a good chance of being accepted into the 4th Norfolks and would know definitely within the week. He wrote that:

Anyhow, I don’t think in the circumstances I could easily bring myself to endure a secluded life of scholastic vegetation. It would seem a somewhat cowardly shirking of my obvious duty. In fact if I do not get to Oxford at all, as seems possible, I shall not much regret it – except that perhaps in that I shall miss the incidental pleasure of seeing you there. Of course, all being well, I could go up after everything is over. I feel, that I am meant to take some active part in this war. It is to me a very fascinating thing – something, if often horrible, yet very enobling and very beautiful, something whose elemental reality raises it above the reach of all cold theorising. You will call me a militarist. You may be right.

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Vera Brittain

Vera replied, on 1 October, that she never expected him to want to go to Oxford; conditions were now very different from those of a month previously. She didn’t know whether his feelings about war were those of a ‘militarist’ or not: She had always called herself a non-militarist, yet the raging of these elemental forces fascinated her, horribly but powerfully, as it did him. Her mixed feelings about war were complicated by her being a woman:

… whether it is noble or barbarous I am quite sure that had I been a boy I should have gone off to take part in it long ago; indeed I have wasted many moments regretting that I am a girl. Women get all the dreariness of war & none of its exhilaration.

A week later, Roland was informed that he had been approved for a commission. In her next letter to him in mid-October, Vera wrote from Somerville College that he had been right in thinking that life at Oxford would have been difficult for him as an undergraduate in war-time. She didn’t know how those there could endure not to be in khaki. Roland’s mother took rooms in London at Christmas and Vera was invited to visit before New Year. On 1 January 1915, he wrote to her, thanking her for her visit:

It has been such a delight to be with you these past two days. I think I shall  always remember them in their wonderful incompleteness and unreality. When I left you I stood by the fountain in the middle of Piccadilly circus to see the New Year in. It was a glorious night, with a full moon so brightly white as to seem blue slung like an arc-lamp directly overhead. I had the feeling of extreme loneliness one is so often conscious of in a large crowd. There was very little demonstration: two Frenchmen standing up in a cab singing the Marseillaise: a few women and some soldiers behind me holding hands and softly humming ‘Auld Lang Syne’. When twelve ‘o’ clock struck there was only a little shudder among the crowd and a distant muffled cheer, and then everyone seemed to melt away again leaving me standing there with tears in my eyes and feeling absolutely wretched.

At the ‘Ides of March’, Roland went to Buxton to say his farewells. Early on the wintry morning of 19 March, Vera said goodbye to him on Buxton Station as he left on the first stage of the journey, with his regiment, to France. After crossing the Channel on 1 April, the regiment’s only immediate sign of war was a sudden flare of light along the road at night and a glimpse of a French military car rushing past, together with an occasional patrol of blue-coated cavalry. Although they could hear the distant sound of heavy artillery fire, for the time being, they were out of the danger zone.

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A Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse tends to a wounded soldier

On 5 April, Vera wrote from Buxton to tell Roland that she was volunteering to help in a large hospital nearby which had been extended to admit the wounded. The Matron said that they had more work than they could manage satisfactorily so that she was glad to accept Vera’s offer. She was to serve as a voluntary aid detachment (VAD) nurse for the rest of the war. By the 11th, she had heard that they were expecting a great many wounded in the summer and would probably want all the extra nurses they could get. They would be almost sure to need her, not merely to darn socks as she had been doing, but to do the usual probationer’s work. Joking, she wrote that if he ‘must get wounded’ he should try to postpone it ’till about August’ by which time she hoped to be efficient enough to be able to look after him. By 12 April, Roland was in the trenches but wrote that there was not really much to do, just that the officers…

…have to go round now and again to see that the men are in their right places and the sentries looking out (in the daytime through periscopes). They go round every three hours or so at night as well and so don’t get much sleep. No one is allowed to take his clothes off, and so you have to scrape as much mud as possible off your boots with a bayonet, tie up each foot in a small sack to keep the mud out of your sleeping bag, and get in boots and all. You rarely have much opportunity to shave or wash properly. It is just getting dusk and the ration parties will be coming in to take the letters back with them. This letter will have been carried under fire by the time it reaches you. Good night, dear, and do not worry on my account…

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May 1915 in the trenches

On 19 April, the Norfolks’ trenches in the middle of a ‘vast wood’ were shelled for some time, and they had their first man killed, shot through the head. But sitting in the sunlight while writing, facing a bank of primroses, Roland was struck by the grim contrast between the danger of war and death and thoughts of the beauty of life and love. The previous morning he had gone up to his fire trench through the sunlit wood and found the body of a dead British soldier hidden in the undergrowth a few yards from the path:

He must have been shot there during the wood fighting in the early part of the war and lain forgotten all of this time … You do not mind my telling you these gruesome things, do you? You asked me to tell you everything. It is of such things that my new life is made.

Vera wrote back affirming that she did want to be told all the gruesome things since she knew that even war would not blunt his sensibilities. She wanted his ‘new life’ to be hers to as great an extent as possible. Her now more conscious ‘feminism’ is evident in the rationale she gave for this:

Women are no longer the sheltered and protected darlings of man’s playtime, fit only for the nursery and the drawing-room – at least, no woman that you are interested in could ever be just that. Somehow I feel it makes me stronger to realise what horrors there are … Now you are in the midst of it all, do you still feel you will come through to the end? 

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On 29th, Roland wrote his letter just after dawn, when everything was very still. Again, he was struck by the contrast between his natural surroundings and the accompanying reminders, sometimes in dramatic interruptions, of the reality of war:

From where I am sitting I can see the sun on the clover field just behind the trenches and a stretch of white road beyond. There are birds singing in the wood on our left, and small curls of blue wood smoke from the men’s fires climbing up through the trees. One of our Machine Guns has been firing single shots every few minutes with a cold and lazy regularity that seems singularly in harmony. Everyone else except the sentries is asleep. … 7.30 am: A French biplane went up a few minutes ago and is circling round and round over the German lines. They have got two anti-aircraft guns and a Maxim trying to hit him. It is a marvellous sight. Every minute there is a rapid report like the pop of a drawn cork magnified, and a fluffy ball of cotton wool appears suddenly in the air beside him. He is turning again now, the white balls floating all around him. You think how pretty it all is – white bird, white puffs of smoke, and the brilliant blue of the sky. It is hard to realise that there is danger up there, and daring, and the calculated courage that is true heroism…

The ‘colour’ in this description also contrasts sharply with our popular images of a war fought in sepia or black-and-white. Meanwhile, on May Day morning in Oxford, Vera was up at dawn for the famous celebrations at the Magdalen tower, the choristers singing the traditional Latin hymn while turning slowly to the sun. Again, her feelings were a mixture of the appreciation of beauty and the pain of thinking how different their lives were now from what they had pictured the previous July, with both of them there enjoying the celebrations together. A week later, she wrote that her greatest object was to get this term over. She didn’t think that another term while the war was in its present condition (and you in yours) would be tolerable. 

Two days later, the first man in Roland’s battalion was killed. He described to Vera the way he had been taking things out of his pockets and tying them round in his handkerchief to be sent back somewhere to someone who would see more than a torn letter, and a pencil, and a knife and a piece of shell. Soon after, Vera received a letter from one of her school friends whose brother was wounded and was then in a hospital in London. Vera’s friend wrote that there were only three officers surviving, including her brother, out of his battalion, and 159 men out of five thousand. They had had to hold their trenches while under shell fire without a single gun to help them and had watched the Germans forming up to attack them without being able to do anything. Their trenches had been taken and as he had been lying wounded he saw the Germans bayoneting his men, including several of his friends, who had also been lying wounded. Vera wondered how he would be affected by this experience.

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On 21 May, Vera wrote that she had never read anything quite so terrible as the official report of the German outrages in Belgium, especially their treatment of the women and children. As a signal of how her attitudes were hardening, like those of many others in response to what we now know was anti-German propaganda, she wrote that she didn’t know how any man could read it and then not enlist, and urged Roland and everyone at the front she knew, “Once you get hold of them, do your very worst.”  She also felt increasingly hostile towards some of the young men among the Whitsuntide trippers whom she witnessed ‘lounging down’ the streets of Oxford…

 … smoking cigarettes with a vacant expression … and a self-satisfied smile on their faces, twirling Japanese umbrellas… and poking them at the passers-by … I can scarcely bear to look at them and think that you and such as you are enduring toil and weariness and risking death that they may remain safe, and that your task is made is made all the harder and heavier because the hero of the Japanese umbrella refrains from relinquishing it for a bayonet. No one has the right to lounge these days, not even an American…

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Above & below, Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War

A week later, at the end of May, Vera wrote to Roland of the more than usually heated conflict… going on in the papers about the war in general and conscription in particular. Lord Northcliffe’s papers seemed to be attacking everyone in authority, especially Lord Kitchener, and the rest of the press was attacking Lord Northcliffe. It seemed…

… a dreadful state of affairs that the authorities are quarrelling among themselves at home while men who are in their hands are dying for them abroad. One begins to doubt the advisability even of the freedom of the Press.

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At the beginning of June, Roland wrote to Vera of his growing disillusionment with the war after two months at the front:

I wonder if I shall still be Somewhere in Flanders when July comes, and memories of Speech Day 1914, and all that I had hoped of Oxford … It all seems so very far away now, I sometimes think that I must have exchanged my life for someone else’s.

On 6 June, he wrote again of the possibility of his getting six days’ leave in the near future. Vera wrote back that sometimes she felt that she couldn’t bear to see him again until the war was over, that the only thing she could not endure living over again the morning of March 19th on Buxton railway station, when they had said goodbye. But she knew that even a short visit from him would be worthwhile and that she was willing to pay the bitterness of death for the sweetness of life. Roland, inexplicably, ‘fell silent’ during July, and at the end of the month, Vera heard that there was a ‘faint chance’ of her getting into a large London hospital as a VAD (auxiliary nurse). The hospital was an ‘immense place’ at Camberwell (No 1 London General), established at the beginning of the war but recently extended, containing over a thousand beds. The hospital administration needed to make an increase in nursing staff as a result and to recruit more VAD staff like Vera. She was keen to transfer there as the hospital got all the wounded straight from the trenches and the VADs were needed to do all the minor dressings.

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Wounded soldiers recovering in an English hospital

On 29 July, she sent Roland a volume of the poems of Rupert Brooke, whom she had regarded as the most promising poet of the younger generation. Brooke was a well-known poet before 1914 who had had his poem The Old Vicarage included in a 1912 volume of Georgian Poetry. He had enlisted in the Navy when the war broke out and fought in the unsuccessful defence of Antwerp, where the naval brigade fought as if they were soldiers. He wrote his five famous war sonnets at Rugby School during the last months of 1914 when he was home on leave. He served in the fleet that was attacking the Turkish positions in the Dardanelles, but on 23 April  1915, he died of blood poisoning on a French hospital ship of the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea. He was buried on top of a high hill on the Greek island of Skyros; among the burial party was Arthur Asquith, son of the Prime Minister. Brooke had not been dead long, however, before the more clear-sighted of his fellow-poets saw the limitations of the poetry that he typified. Charles Sorley expressed in one of his letters his conviction that Brooke’s sonnets had been overpraised:

He is far too obsessed with his own sacrifice, regarding the going to war of himself (and others) as a highly intense, remarkable and sacrificial exploit, whereas it is merely the conduct demanded of him (and others) by the turn of circumstances.

Arthur Graeme West, who was killed in 1917, expressed his contempt of poets who wrote such lines as ‘O happy to have lived these epic days’ and ignored the revolting appearance of the dead and dying in actual warfare. One of his own poems began with a direct attack on Brooke and his imitators:

God! how I hate you, you young cheerful men,

Whose pious poetry blossoms on your graves

As soon as you are in them.

From a literary perspective, the critic F. R. Leavis wrote that Brooke’s verse exhibited a genuine sensuousness rather like Keats’s … and something… rather like Keats’s vulgarity with a Public School accent.  On the other hand, Robert Nichols, a leading Georgian poet and friend both of Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon from before 1914, was still insisting in 1943 that:

Rupert Brooke’s sonnets are full of that sensation of being gathered up. They are wonderful works of art and it is sad that they have come to be regarded by many with suspicion.

But the latter half of the war produced a second generation of young soldiers who produced very different kinds of war poetry from that of  Brooke or Nichols. At the time Vera sent them to Roland she thought he would love them all … not the War Sonnets only, though they are perhaps the most beautiful. She was right, as on receiving the volume, he read it straight through. He wrote of how it made him feel that he wanted to sit down and write things himself instead of doing what he had to do as an officer there, and of how…

It stirs up all the old forgotten things, and makes me so, so angry and impatient with most of the soulless nonentities one finds around one here. I used to talk of the Beauty of War; but it is only War in the abstract that is beautiful. Modern warfare is merely a trade, and it is only a matter of taste whether one is a soldier or a greengrocer, as far as I can see. Sometimes by dint of an opportunity a single man may rise from the sordidness to a deed of beauty; but that is all.

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‘No road this way’: the Germans made access very difficult for the advancing Allies.

On 15 August, Roland wrote to let Vera know that he was coming home on leave in three days’ time. He then sent a telegram arranging to meet her at St Pancras’ first-class ladies’ waiting room as soon as he could get across there from Liverpool Street Station. Roland’s leave lasted for just under a week, during which he and Vera agreed to become unofficially engaged “for three years or the duration of the War”. After spending the first night at Buxton, they travelled to Lowestoft to be with his family. As they sat alone on a cliff path, the afternoon before their departure, Roland rested his head on Vera’s shoulder for a while, and then kissed her. As she had to return to report for nursing duty in Buxton and Roland was not returning to France until the end of the week, he saw her off at St Pancras on 23 August. He kissed her goodbye and then, almost furtively, wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. Later that day, Vera wrote in her diary, I hadn’t realised until then that this quiet & self-contained person was suffering so much.

Return of the dead officer’s kit:

As the train began to move she had time to kiss him and murmur “Goodbye”. She stood by the door and watched him walk back through the crowd, not turning around. What she could see of his face was ‘set and pale’. That was the last Vera saw of Roland. His next leave was due to be at Christmas 1915, but he died on 23 December of wounds received during a night-time wire inspection a day earlier. Instead of receiving him home in person, his family were sent his ‘personal effects’ in the New Year. What follows here is are extracts from a letter written by Vera to her brother Edward on 14 January 1916 from the London hospital where she was working as a nurse. She had travelled to Brighton to visit Roland’s family:

I arrived at a very opportune, though very awful, moment. All Roland’s things had just been sent back from the front through Cox’s; they had just opened them  and they were all lying on the floor. I had no idea before of the results of an officer’s death, or what the returned kit, of which so much has been written in the papers, really meant. It was terrible. Mrs Leighton and Clare were both crying as bitterly as on the day we heard of the his death, and Mr Leighton with his usual instinct was taking all the things everybody else wanted and putting them where nobody could ever find them…

These were his clothes – the clothes in which he came home from the front last time. Everything was damp and worn and simply raked with mud. And I was glad that neither of you, nor Victor, nor anyone else who may some day go to the front was there to see. If you had been you would have been overwhelmed by the horror of war without its glory. For though he had only worn those things when he was living, the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards and the dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies – dead that had been dead a long, long time. All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality and decay and corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes. I know now what he meant when he used to write of “this refuse heap of a country’ or “a trench that is nothing but a charnel-house’. 

And the wonder is, not that he temporarily lost the extremest refinements of his personality as Mrs Leighton says he did, but that he ever kept any of it at all – let alone nearly the whole. He was more marvellous than even I dreamed. There was his cap, bent in and shapeless out of recognition – the soft cap he wore rakishly on the back of his head – with the badge coated thickly with mud. He must have fallen on top of it, or perhaps one of the people who fetched him trampled on it …

We discovered that the bullet was an expanding one. The hole where it went in in front – well below where the belt would have been, just below the right-hand bottom pocket of the tunic – was almost microscopic, but at the back almost exactly where his back bone would have been, there was quite a large rent. The under things he was wearing at the time have evidently had to be destroyed, but they sent back a khaki waistcoat or vest … which was dark and stiff with blood, and a pair of khaki breeches also in the same state, which had been slit open at the top by someone in a great hurry – probably the doctor in haste to get at the wound, or perhaps even by one of the men. Even the tabs of his braces were blood-stained. He must have fallen on his back, as in every case the back of his clothes was much more stained and muddy than the front.

The charnel-house smell seemed to grow stronger and stronger till it pervaded the room and obliterated everything else. Mrs Leighton said,

“Robert, take those clothes away into the kitchen, and don’t let me see them again; I must either burn or bury them. They smell of death; they are not Roland, they seem to detract from his memory and spoil his glamour”.

And indeed one could never imagine those things the same as those in which he had lived and walked. One couldn’t believe anyone alive had been in them at all. No, they were not him. After the clothes had gone we opened the window wide and felt better, but it was a long time before the smell and even the taste of them went away.

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On 1 July 1916, Vera also lost her brother Edward to whom she wrote a poem in 1918 (right). In Testament of Youth, published in 1933, Vera wrote of how she felt on Armistice Day in 1918, having lost Roland, Edward and two other friends. She felt that she was already living in a different world from the one that she had known during the past four years. This new world was one in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. She would have no part in that alien world because she had no-one to share it with; all those with whom she had been intimate had gone. For the first time, she realised how completely everything that had hitherto made up her life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey:

The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return.

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Testament of the Disillusioned Peace:

The First World War was a deep shock to every individual who experienced it personally, from poets to politicians, either directly or indirectly. It often left a lasting sense of loss with them. The war poets, like Wilfred Owen, who was killed just a week before the Armistice was signed, and Siegfried Sassoon, who survived, produced brilliant, often pathetic or vituperative, but always compelling pieces of literature on the nature of trench warfare on the western front. I have written extensively about Owen’s life, tragic death and his poetry elsewhere on this site. Sassoon (1886-1967) began the war as a patriot. Already enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry, he broke his arm when falling from his horse; consequently, he did not go to the Front till November 1915 and until then his poetry showed much the same attitude as Brooke’s did. He joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a commissioned officer, and early in 1916 was sent to the First Battalion in France. He showed remarkable and rather eccentric courage. His heroic episodes in bringing back wounded from no man’s land and in capturing a trench full of Germans single-handed won him the Military Cross; these episodes were described by Robert Graves, an officer in the same regiment, in Goodbye to All That.

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The war radically changed Sassoon’s approach to poetry, the romanticism of his early works replaced by muddy death, blood, cowardice and suicide. In July 1916 he was invalided home; on leave, he became a virtual pacifist. He had lost faith in the ethical cause for which the Allies were fighting, and in the strategy and tactics used by Allied generals on the Western Front. He was, therefore, the first poet to publish poetry that was openly critical of the Allies’ motives and methods in waging the war. By the spring of 1917, he was back in the front line at the Battle of Arras and was wounded in the neck. Invalided home again he adopted more dramatic methods of showing his opposition to the war. Graves persuaded Sassoon to appear before an army medical board, which sent him to a hospital for neurasthenia at Craiglockart in Scotland, where he was treated by a well-known psychiatrist, Dr W. H. R. Rivers, and where he encouraged his fellow-patient, Wilfred Owen, in writing poetry.

As the historian Henry Pelling pointed out, in 1914 the country had not been psychologically prepared for the trials it had to undergo, the appalling suffering of the trenches and the rate of casualties never previously experienced. Britain and its Empire had lost almost a million men, with twice as many wounded; this placed them fifth behind Russia, Germany, France and Austria-Hungary in a war that claimed more than thirty-five million civilian and military casualties around the world. Technology had given these powers the artillery gun and the machine-gun, and their leaders elected to kill more than sixteen million people with these weapons. In the immediate aftermath, there was a reluctance to get to grips with what had happened. In some ways, this was surprising because, for the first time ever, the ranks were filled with natural reporters. The troops who went into action at the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 were mostly volunteers who had answered the appeal of Lord Kitchener. They came from every stratum of society, from the unemployed to factory hands, clerks and office workers, and on through to lawyers, doctors and landed gentry.

As John Buchan wrote in 1935, a war solves no problem but the one – which side is the stronger. In November 1918 the Allies felt that they had overthrown a great menace and arrogance. But what was to come next? It was an old assumption that some spiritual profit was assured by material loss and bodily suffering, but it was certain that the moral disorder was at least as conspicuous as the moral gain. He went on:

The passions of many millions cannot be stirred for years without leaving a hideous legacy. Human life has been shorn of its sacredness; death and misery and torture have become too familiar, the old decorums and sanctions have lost something of their power. The crust of civilisation has worn thin, and beneath can be heard the muttering of the primordial fires. … Principles, which seemed fundamental, are… weakened, and men are inclined to question the cardinal articles of their faith. …

But the chief consequence of so great a war as this was the mental and moral fatigue. Minds were relaxed and surfeited, when they were not disillusioned. They had had enough of the heroic. After the strain of the distant vision they were apt to seek the immediate advantage; after so much altruism they asked leave to attend to private interests; after their unremitting labours they claimed the right of apathy. The conundrums of peace had to be faced not only by jaded statesmen, but by listless, confused peoples. Mr Lloyd George found the right word for the malady when he described it as a “fever of anaemia.”

The situation was the more dangerous for the Allies, because the intricate business of peace should have been the work of the peoples, as they had been the architects of victory. The war was not won by the genius of the few but by the faithfulness of the many. It had been a vindication of the essential greatness of our common nature. … But the peoples seemed to stand aside, and cast the whole burden of settlement on statesmen whose shoulders were already weary. Nothing was more striking than the popular apathy about the business of peacemaking. …

Britain caught the same infection as the rest of the world. … As for youth, it shut its ears for a little to every call except the piping of pleasure. … The War was a memory to be buried. Young men back from the trenches tried to make up for the four years of natural amusement of which they had been cheated; girls, starved for years of their rights, came from dull war-work and shadowed schoolrooms determined to win back something. …

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The soldiers had returned, both male and female, as the picture above of them sitting on Brighton beach in 1919 reveals. The well-known blue uniform was seen about the streets. The wounded looked cheerful in the second picture below, presumably, simply because they were alive.

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The newspaper reporting of the time was factual but restrained and relatively free of ‘comment’ apart from the editorials; “morale” was all-important. The poetry of Siegfried Sassoon supplied a tiny audience what was missing from the reportage. He continued to show his distrust of England’s ‘ruling classes’ in several ways, writing Aftermath in 1920:

Have you forgotten yet? …

For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,

Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city ways:

And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow

Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,

Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same – and war’s a bloody game …

Have you forgotten yet? …

Look down , and swear by the dead of the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –

The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?

Do you remember the rats; and the stench

Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –

And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?

Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack

And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then

As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?

Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back

With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey

Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet? …

Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

There were some undistinguished novels in the 1920s, but it was ten years before Robert Graves and Sassoon felt able to release their officer-class memoirs and before R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End was first performed. Sassoon became the first literary editor of the Daily Herald, the new Socialist newspaper, and his prose books such as Memoirs of an Infantry Officer implied considerable criticism of the class system. The experience scarred many, on all fronts, including the home front, in deep psychological ways.

(to be continued…)

A Hundred Years Ago – The Great War: Spring into Summer, 1918.   Leave a comment

‘Aces High’ downed – Red Baron & Prancing Horse:

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The Royal Air Force, formed on 1st April, celebrated by shooting down German ace Manfred von Richthofen three weeks later. He was the ‘ace of aces’, the fighter pilot who brought down the most enemy aircraft. He had begun the war as a cavalry officer before transferring to the German air force. He led a fighter wing known as the ‘Flying Circus’ because of their brightly painted aircraft.  Von Richthofen’s own personal machines were painted bright red, giving rise to his nickname, the Red Baron. Between September 1916 and April 1918 he brought down eighty allied aircraft before he was finally brought down. One RAF fighter pilot, Mick Mannock, refused to toast von Richthofen on his demise, saying “I hope the bastard roasted on the way down.” Later, in the summer, British novelist D H Lawrence was married to Frieda von Richthofen, a distant cousin of Manfred.

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In June, Italy’s highest-scoring fighter ace, Francesco Baracca, was killed. His aircraft featured a prancing horse symbol painted on the side. Years later Francesco’s mother suggested to a young racing driver called Enzo Ferrari that he adopt the symbol for his racing cars.

The Australian Corps go fishing:

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Above: An Australian Imperial Guard keeps watch.

The renowned Australian Corps came under the command of the British Army’s General Rawlinson early in 1918. He was pleased with the men and wrote in his diary about their unusual pastimes in the trenches:

They are certainly original fighters and up to all sorts of dodges, some of which would shock a strict disciplinarian. Some of the German shells were falling short into the pools of the Somme river and exploded under water. Two Australians spent the day in a boat rowing about and watching for a shell to explode and then picked up the stunned fish. They wore their gas masks to prevent recognition!

Third Battle of the Aisne, 27th May – 9th June:

Aiming to tie the Allies down to allow a main attack in the north, the Germans launched their third large-scale attack at Chemin des Dames and the River Aisne with a new storm breaking on the Aisne heights, a ferocious artillery barrage that shattered French units massed on the front line. It was estimated that two million shells were fired in the four-and-a-half-hour-long preliminary bombardment. By the evening, the French gains in the three great actions had vanished like smoke, and the Germans had crossed the river, advancing fourteen miles on the first day, an unprecedented success on the Western Front. Operation Blücher-Yorck was a great success for the German commander, Erich Ludendorff. On the second day, he was beyond the Vesle, and on the third, his vanguard was looking down from the heights of the Tardenois on the waters of the Marne. It was the swiftest advance made in the West since the beginning of trench warfare.

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Pleased with his success, Ludendorff then changed his plans and took forces reserved for a northern attack to support a drive westwards to Paris. The message painted on Germans trucks read, On to Paris! But the advance ran out of supplies and momentum as American troops, fighting their first engagement of the war at Cantigny, together with French forces, stood in the way. Captain Lloyd Williams of the US Marines in Belleau Wood summed up the Americans’ mood; Retreat? Hell, we only just got here! Williams was killed in the ensuing battle that followed on 6th June. The Marines began a counter-attack to take the wood. On the first day, they lost 1,087 men, more than had been lost in the whole of the Marines’ history to that date. Nevertheless, after three weeks of brutal fighting, they eventually took the wood. Meanwhile, on 9th June, Ludendorff had tried to cut off the Allied salient between the two great dents he had made but failed again. His position was hopeless; he was the victim of his own early successes.

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Above: New British troops arrive at a port in France.

Battle of Matz, 9th – 13th June; Advent of the Americans:

Operation Gneisenau, a further German attack, was intended to straighten their forward line. Despite inadequate planning, they pushed the French back, gaining six miles of territory and inflicting heavier casualties than they suffered. However, the offensive floundered and French counter-attacks forced the Germans to halt proceedings after only a few days. In the course of this Spring Offensive, as it became known, they had lost 963,000 men. By this time their surviving soldiers had become so disheartened and disillusioned by their failure to break through the Allied defences that they began shouting abuse at their own reinforcements, calling them, War prolongers! At the same time, ten thousand Americans were arriving each day in France. By the summer of 1918 half a million ‘doughboys’ were on the front line. The British Army was also reinforced, having suffered a 36% casualty rate during the Spring Offensive, with 540,000 new recruits being sent to the Front between March and August. But the Germans facing them still had 207 divisions in all, compared with 203 Allied divisions. Britain also employed manual workers from several nationalities to work in France:

Chinese               96,000

Indians                48,000

South Africans     21,000

Egyptians            15,000

West Indians        8,000

On 19 July, Honduras became the last country to join the war, declaring war on Germany.

Heroines at Home and at the Front:

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Above: Women filling shells.

Back in ‘Blighty’, after an explosion at the Chilwell National Shell Filling Factory in Nottingham killed 134 employees, it was suggested that the Victoria Cross be awarded to staff for their subsequent bravery in going about their own work. Sadly this was not done, as the medal could only be given to individuals in uniform. The number of women in non-domestic employment in April 1918 had risen to 4,808,000, 1.5 million more than four years earlier.

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At the Front, two British women who had earned themselves the nickname from Belgian troops, the two Madonnas of Pervyse, Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker, were injured in a gas attack in 1918. They had travelled to Ypres in 1914, setting up an independent first aid station. They were awarded seventeen medals for bravery.

The Second Battle of the Marne, 15 July – 5 August:

The May and June attacks by the Germans had driven the French back from the Aisne to the Marne. There are two explanations for the surprising extent of the German advance, shown on the map below. First, instead of attacking in ‘waves’ of men, they advanced in small groups pressing forward where the opposition was weak and keeping their reserves close at hand to exploit any gap created. Secondly, the British Fifth Army was unusually weak: the line recently taken over from the French had not been put into a proper state of defence; Haig had massed his reserves in the north, where he expected an attack; and after Passchendaele, Lloyd George had retained many reserves in England to prevent unprofitable squandering of life. However, by early July, the German successes had failed to bring outright victory.

The advances had so exceeded Ludendorff’s expectations that he was unprepared to exploit them. The British troops offered magnificent resistance in response to Haig’s famous order, With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. Finally, the arrival of Allied reserves, in fresh condition from Palestine and Italy, turned the tide.

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Ludendorff still hoped to create a diversion that would allow a decisive attack in Flanders. His last offensive began on 15th July, east and west of Rheims. Divisions drove forwards, crossing the River Marne in several places, but then they were held. The advance achieved nothing and instead the Germans had fallen into the Allied trap. Hitherto Foch had stood patiently on the defensive, hoarding his assets. He had tried almost too highly the fortitude of the British soldier. Now he had got his reserve, and Haig, to augment it, had dangerously thinned his own front in the north, to the consternation of the War Cabinet. The moment had come to use it. On 18th July Foch counter-attacked on the right flank of the new German salient and drove it in. This attack was led by masses of light tanks which forced the Germans to retire. It was not a great counterstroke, but it forced Ludendorff to pause and consider. He halted and then began to withdraw from the Marne pocket.

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Foch now had freedom of movement, for with him, at last, was the full American army. By July, there were already a million Americans in France. The German command had long been aware of how great this menace was, but the German press had told the people that it was only a force in buckram. Even up to July this newspaper belittlement continued. But at Chateau-Thierry in June an American contingent had fought with furious gallantry, and on 15th July in the same area, one American division and elements from another had rolled back the German assault. These were the troops who, according to the German press, would not land in Europe unless they could swim like fishes or fly like birds. They had proved their worth in pushing the Germans back to their March starting positions.

Preparations for the Peace Offensive:

But the true counter-attack was not to come until August, at Amiens. In July, the Allied attacks showed the effectiveness of ‘all-arms’ battle tactics, with troops and tanks advancing behind an artillery ‘creeping barrage’ while ground-attack aircraft swept overhead. At Amiens, these were to be put into operation to great effect. The plan for the Peace Offensive, which aimed at compelling a German surrender, was wholly British. Haig had now come to the height of his powers and was a different man from the cautious, orthodox soldier of the earlier days of the war. He had not always been happy with his French colleagues; in some ways, he had been too similar to Pétain, and in every other way too dissimilar to Foch, to be quite at ease with either of them. But now his mind and Foch’s seemed to be on the same ‘wavelength’. The Chief of Allied forces was now elevated enough to take advice, and from Haig, he drew not only his chief weapon – the tank – but also many of his tactics, as well as certain key points in his strategy. The British Army had suffered far more than the French in terms of casualties, but they were still ready to take the chief role, one which they retained until the last day of the war. This was a measure of the reverence in which Foch held his ally. The British ‘Tommy’ was, by now, well-disciplined, as the following notice, pasted into their pay-books, suggests:

Keep your mouths shut! The success of any operation we carry out depends chiefly on surprise. Do not talk – when you know that your unit is making preparations for an attack, don’t talk about them to men in other units, or to stangers, and keep your mouth shut, especially in public places.

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British troops at Verneuil, 19 May 1918.

This secrecy was essential to success at Amiens since many previous battles had shown the Germans fully aware of Allied plans. The tables were now turned, with British intelligence also far more effective than it had been previously. Detailed preparations could be made on the basis of information obtained which identified 95% of German artillery positions. Ernest James RollingsIn particular, Lt Ernest Rollings MC of the 17th Armoured Car Battalion (pictured left) went ‘behind enemy lines’ to recover detailed plans of the Hindenberg Line. On his return, he commented that it was by far the best fighting day I have ever had. In 1931, a newspaper report described the Welshman as ‘The Man Who Ended the War’. Perhaps the journalist who wrote of it thought that he deserved a ‘niche in the pantheon’ alongside that other iconic Welshman, and PM, David Lloyd George (below), the Man who won the War.

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Above: David Lloyd George at the height of his power.

The Temper and Temperature of Britain:

For now, however, the temper of Britain through the spring and summer was heavy and apathetic, but it revealed by little spurts of violence how near men and women were living to the outer edges of their nerves. The crisis of March and April had produced a new resolution, but it was a resolution which had no exhilaration in it and little hope. People had begun to doubt if the War would ever end. The night was still so black that they had forgotten that the darkest hour might presage the dawn. But as the months of ‘darkness’ dragged on, and the word from the battle-fields was only of still further retreats and losses, the popular mood sank again into a dull listlessness. To make matters worse, in June there was an outbreak of ‘Spanish ‘flu’. Thirty people died in Lancashire, but no one had any idea how many millions more it was about to kill.

For Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, the soldier-poets, the satire they wrote was partly the product of the feeling that they belonged to a different race from the civilians they found themselves among while convalescing at Craiglockart Hospital near Edinburgh. Sassoon published his satirical poems in Counter-Attack (1918). Many of them were protest poems indignantly implying that the war was being needlessly prolonged by politicians and generals who could have stopped it. While Owen was on invalid leave in England, if he met civilians who talked too glibly about the war, he would thrust in front of their eyes photographs of horribly mutilated soldiers. But he, together with Sassoon and Osbert Sitwell, reserved his satirical condemnation for the rich, old men who were making a profit out of the war and did not share the soldiers’ terrible discomforts and dangers, yet concealed their selfishness behind a front of self-righteous flag-waving and jingoism. In his poem, The Parable of the Old Men and the Young, Owen envisages Abraham killing Isaac despite God’s command to sacrifice a ram instead:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This indignant mood that led these soldier-poets to satirise civilians is revealed in a letter which Owen wrote to his mother from Scarborough in July 1918:

This morning at 8.20 we heard a boat torpedoed in the bay, about a mile out. I wish the Boche would have the pluck to come right in and make a clean sweep of the pleasure boats, and the promenaders on the Spa, and all the stinking Leeds and Bradford war-profiteers now reading ‘John Bull’ on Scarborough Sands.

The Return of the War Horse & the Fall of the Virgin:

The morale of the soldiers at the Front throughout the spring and early summer matched the cynical protests of people and poets on the home front, for the war to be brought to an end. It was perhaps best summed up in the following song:   

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Meanwhile, preparations for the offensive continued throughout the summer. Fifteen thousand cavalry horses prepared for action. Cavalrymen had operated as unmounted infantry for most of the war since there were few opportunities for horse-mounted soldiers to fight effectively on the typical Western Front battlefield. As the fighting became more open again, cavalry began to be utilised once more.

Earlier in the war, in the town of Albert, near to the Somme, a statue of the Virgin Mary outside a church was hit. It didn’t fall completely and remained, leaning over. It was reckoned that when it finally fell the war would end. At the beginning of August, the statue toppled. Trench warfare on both sides was certainly coming to an end, thanks to the tanks. But as the Germans left their trenches in the summer of 1918, they left notices for the British to warn them that the war was far from won and lost:

Dear Tommy,

You are quite welcome to what we are leaving. When we stop we shall stop, and stop you in a manner you won’t appreciate.

Fritz 

Sources:

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.

Fiona Waters (2007), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green: Transatlantic Press.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1938), A Sketch-Map of the Great War and After, 1914-1935. London: Harrap.

E. L. Black (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

Family Life, Labour and Leisure: The Forward March of Women In Britain, 1930-40 (Chapter Six).   Leave a comment

Chapter Six: Motherhood, Domesticity & Recreation.

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Between the wars, high maternal mortality and infant mortality rates continued to disfigure most industrial districts in Britain. While deaths in childbirth affected all classes of women, Hans Singer showed in his 1937 reports for the Pilgrim Trust that there was a clear relationship between poverty and maternal mortality rates (I have written about this in the previous series of articles). The high rate of maternal was a national disgrace. It was the result of numerous causes, including a moral attitude to women and conception that contributed to their suffering. In England and Wales, four women in every thousand lost their lives in childbirth every year. As we have seen in an earlier chapter in this series, the rate was seven per thousand in the distressed areas of South Wales, a fact masked by the continuing high birth-rate in the area throughout the inter-war period. In January 1936, the Prime Minister announced that a bill to establish a national midwives’ service would be put before Parliament. Under the Act, all maternity cases would, from July 1937, be conducted by a properly qualified midwife, whether working under a local authority or a voluntary service. With the agreement of the Chancellor, the service, costing half a million pounds, was to be funded by central government. Conservatives responded to the call of their leader and his wife, while Labour MPs welcomed the establishment of a national medical service in tune with their party’s pledge to provide a universal national health service. One of them, Arthur Greenwood, author of the play Love on the Dole, referred to the eugenic advantages of improving the maternity care of mothers:

… what this nation may in future lack in numbers, it ought to be the aim of statesmanship to make up in quality. That has a very distinct bearing upon the problem of maternal well-being.

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As Susan Williams has pointed out, it was the first time that the principles of a state medical service had been put into effect, scotching the myth that the NHS sprang to life fully formed in 1948 as the brainchild of Aneurin Bevan (see the caption above). Nevertheless, the relationship between poverty and infant mortality was even clearer. In Coventry, although the rate of infant deaths at the beginning of the interwar period, 92 per thousand, was lower than in many other major West Midland towns and cities, it was still far too high. The vital statistics taken from an average of the seven years ending 1931 showed an overall death-rate of 12.1 for England and Wales as a whole, compared with 11.6 for Birmingham and 6.5 for Bournville, Cadbury’s ‘model village’ area of the second city. Infant mortality rates for England and Wales over the same period were 69, for Birmingham 72 and for Bournville 56. In the earliest of these years, the heights and weights of Bournville children were compared with one of the children of one of the more deprived areas of Birmingham, and the Bournville children were found to be between two to four inches taller and between four and nine pounds heavier.

More than a decade later, a survey carried out on behalf of the Birmingham Social Survey Committee in 1939 was concerned with the relationship between poverty and the size of families on a new housing estate in one of the city’s poorest suburbs, Kingstanding. It found that, at a time when the volume of both employment and earnings were higher than ever before in Birmingham’s history, fourteen percent of the 5,300 families with dependent children on the estate had insufficient income to buy the minimum diet prescribed by the British Medical Association (B.M.A.). This meant that one-third of the children on the estate were living in poverty. The investigators separated these families into groups according to the number of dependent children they had. They found that whilst only five percent of the families with one or two children under fourteen were in poverty, forty percent of the families with three or more dependent children were below the minimum line.

Across the country as a whole, although contraception was not readily available, it was becoming widespread, thanks to the work of the Marie Stopes clinics. Many married couples across Britain were using some method to prevent pregnancy. As a result, families were declining in size, leading to widespread fears of a shrinking population. Eugenicists warned of a decline in the country’s ‘human stock’, as the families with many children tended to be from the poorer working class. One of the motivations behind Marie Stopes’ publicising of the effects of the benefits of contraception was the eugenicist belief in the necessity of limiting the ‘poor quality’ offspring of this class. Despite Stopes’s efforts, there were still large families in solidly working-class towns and poorer districts of London and cities such as Birmingham and Coventry. Margery Spring-Rice, the pioneering social reformer, studied the lives of 1,250 mothers in these districts for her book, Working-Class Wives. Alongside the poverty and hardship, she drew attention to the number of pregnancies the women endured. Nearly five was the average, but a third of those she studied had six or more confinements, which led to large families, despite the high rates of infant mortality. In 1936, for every thousand births, fifty-six babies were dead before the age of one, compared with fewer than five per thousand today. Only half of the poorer families Margery Spring-Rice researched used any form of birth control.

Oral evidence for Coventry reveals how a group of self-organised working-class women determined to combat this ‘social ill’ through their practical involvement with mothers and children in its poorer, but growing suburbs. Six members of the Women’s Cooperative Guild were elected to the City Council between the wars, lobbying powerfully for the expansion of Maternity and Child Welfare clinics. Cooperative guilds-women also became voluntary workers in these clinics as they were established by independent committees in the expanding city. A daughter of one of these women, interviewed in the mid-1980s, had fond memories of her mother’s work in a voluntary clinic. She recalled that, as a twelve-year-old, she had helped her mother tear old sheets into strips to make the ‘belly bindings’ which had formed parts of the contents of maternity bags issued to mothers in need. In 1935, Alderman Mrs Hughes spoke to Lower Stoke Branch of the wonderful way our guilds-women have taken to the Maternity and Child Welfare work, a new clinic having been opened at Radford, staffed with guilds-women. 

Right up until the reorganisation of health services into the NHS in 1948, voluntary workers played a large part in Maternity and Child Welfare work in the city. During this period there was only one clinic administered by the City Council, although after the 1929 Local Government Act it did provide medical and nursing staff for the voluntary clinics. Statistics showing the number of children attending clinics (above) provide evidence of the extent of the voluntary commitment. Proximity was probably the biggest factor in the popularity of the voluntary clinics for they were held in church halls and similar buildings in residential areas, whereas the municipal clinic was held in the city centre. The attitude of the volunteers at the clinics may also have been important. As well as being deterred by personal difficulties such as the inability to afford to pay the fare to a centre or to attend at awkward hours, ‘poor people’ may also have been put off by a harsh or wooden administration or unacceptable personnel. These problems could be overcome by the use of voluntary workers who had both a genuine concern for the mothers and a thorough understanding of their problems.

Ivy Cowdrill was involved both in the establishment and the day-to-day administration of a clinic which was opened in Tile Hill in 1937. Her account of her work shows that when voluntary workers were part of the community in which a clinic was established they had a shared experience which helped them to understand the mother’s problems. She begins with an explanation of the circumstances in which her local clinic was opened:

… they were starting to build up here … and the people used to come along the lane here … it was all fields then … They (the mothers) used to go down with the prams all the way to Gulson Road (the municipal clinic in the city centre) to get the cheap food … I used to feel sorry for them. Well, we all did. And Pearl Hyde talked to us about it and asked if we’d help her. We certainly would! … There were several of us in … the Coop Guild … We talked about it at the Guild but it was when Pearl started to come round that we got to talk about it more.

Pearl Hyde was the Labour Party candidate for the ward. Although she did not win the seat in the 1937 municipal elections in which the Party won control of the Council, she was successful shortly afterwards in a by-election in another ward. Due to her local government commitments and her work with the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, Pearl Hyde’s practical involvement with the clinic soon ceased but the enthusiasm of her followers remained and many of those originally involved were inspired to carry on until 1941 when ‘the (Ministry of) Health’ took over. Ivy Cowdrill’s testimony conveyed the enthusiasm and energy of the women involved:

We got talking about it and they all said they’d help … we used to go out every day. My daughter used to go with me, knocking on doors, enquiring … to see how many babies and who would come.

With the approval of the Ministry of Health and with professional personnel provided by the city council the clinic was opened in October 1937. Ivy Cowdrill went on to give a detailed description of activities at the clinic and the duties of voluntary workers:

We bought aluminium bowls and we used to put a clean piece of tissue paper in the bowl … to put the babies’ clothes in, by the side of every chair. We used to go early and do that before the clinic opened. And put everything ready and the scales … One would be weighing the toddlers this side and one the other side weighing the tiny babies. And we had a couple of nurses (health visitors) and a doctor. We had a doctor’s room. We used to take it in turns or it wouldn’t be fair or someone would have the dirty jobs all the while, washing the aluminium bowls out, washing the cups and saucers.

From the evidence in the local Medical Officer of Health reports it appears that the majority of voluntary clinics were organised in this way. The volunteers administered the clinics and were ancillary workers whilst the councils provided the health visitors and doctors. A criticism of voluntary clinics in this era was that voluntary workers were inclined to usurp the duties of the health visitors but there is no evidence that Coventry volunteers took over any of the health visitors’ educational or advisory duties. Indeed, they did not receive training in such matters. What many of them did have, however, was the experience of being mothers and that would qualify them as experts on baby matters in the eyes of many of the young mothers who attended the clinics. In this capacity, they passed on common sense advice and words of encouragement as they handled the babies. Not only were many of them experienced mothers, but most of them had experienced a similar lifestyle to the women who attended, and they spoke the same colloquial language.

The usual image of a voluntary worker is of a middle class ‘lady bountiful’, but in the thirties working class helpers were fairly common in baby clinics, in Coventry and elsewhere. They often had part-time jobs in the factories or in local hospitals as, for example, laundry workers. Although they might be more financially secure than many of the young mothers, many of them had endured periods of hardship themselves in younger days. Apart from the weighing of babies, the main tasks of a voluntary worker at a child welfare clinic centred around the sale of baby foods and food supplements. Here too their knowledge of working-class life was useful, as they were immediately aware when some of the mothers needed flexible arrangements regarding payment:

We used to sell Bemax, Marmite, Ovaltine and every food there was until the National Food came out; orange juice, vitamin pills, the lot … It was very big welfare. You can tell by the money we took ’cause the food was … very cheap … And the Ovaltine was only about a shilling … If anyone said, “I’ve no money”, I’d say, “We’ll get it”. I’d lend them the money and they’d bring it back here … And I’ve come home like a packed mule ’cause the soldiers’ wives used to have their money on a Monday and the clinic wasn’t till Thursday, so … they’d no money come Thursday … I used to bring the food home and they used to come here for it here … My husband used to shout “Shop!”

The volunteers were also aware of other needs among their clients. The concept of ‘welfare’ was extended and clinic attendance was made into a social occasion by the provision of tea and biscuits. Special social events, including day trips, were organised, and Cadbury’s donated bars of chocolate for the children for Christmas parties. The Coventry clinic seems to have been the sort of centre which could have developed into the type of women’s club advocated by Margery Spring-Rice of the Women’s Health Enquiry Committee in 1939. Such a centre would enable women to meet their fellows … form social ties … talk and laugh and eat food which they had not cooked themselves. The efforts made in this direction by the Tile Hill volunteers were appreciated by the women of the district throughout the thirties and early forties. Not only were the volunteers deeply committed to the work, but they also gained a great deal of satisfaction from what was, in effect, an extension of the traditional female role of nurturer within the private domain of the family. Ivy Cowdrill’s recollection typified this:

It was great. I loved it. Thursday was my day out … and I just lived for Thursday every week. You know it was so great to be involved in it … It wasn’t only working at the welfare, we was interested in the life of the children altogether. You seem to live for them really. You got so interested in it, it seemed to occupy your mind all the while.

Volunteers like Ivy Cowdrill made their mark by transferring the caring values of the private domain into the public one of the clinic and putting a human face on what was otherwise an impersonal service. The people who flooded into Coventry during the thirties, attracted by jobs in the new factories, were mainly young people. The proportion of the population aged over forty-five in the City was lower than almost anywhere else in Britain. The people had more consistent and better-remunerated work than in most other industrial areas and yet infant mortality remained high and old vested interests resisted the modernisation of medical services. The women of the Coop Guild, with little help from the State, set about tackling this problem and confronted it with zeal and zest until the onset of war and then the foundation of the National Health Service prepared the way for the bureaucratization of health care. Many of the ‘clinic activists’ gave up their positions with reluctance having hoped for a role for their voluntary work within the healthcare schemes devised by the state.

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Oral testimony is also a crucial source of information about attitudes towards family life in the past. In many respects, Coventry interviewees might be speaking for members of working-class families of any industrial town in Britain. Peter Lynam’s article on Domestic Life in Coventry 1920-39 draws material from a wider study of Coventry car workers based on sixty interviews with couples from three generations. Most of the evidence was drawn from talking with the women who, apart from relatively short periods at work either just before marriage or during the second world war, spent most of their time on the domestic front. Many of those interviewed, although resident in Coventry for many decades, had spent their formative years in other towns and regions. Even those proud to have been born in the City were children of at least one parent who had come from outside. Marjorie Clark remarked of her own parents, for example:

Mother was a cook in service in Cheshire, and dad was an engineer, a toolroom man, in Altrincham … Dad came first, got a job in Coventry and got lodgings. Then mother followed and, of course, being in Coventry, as cook-housekeeper. And they got married in Coventry and stayed afterwards … They must have come to Coventry about 1906-1907, married about 1909 …

June Bream came as a very young child to Coventry in the early twenties. Her background displayed the peculiar characteristic shared by the families of tradesmen working in the motor industry at an early stage of its development:

I was born in Liverpool, in Wavertree, West Derby … My grandma had a boarding house in Southport and before I was born my father worked in Scotland … My father was an old coach-builder and in those days they had to travel to where the work was. So they had a big tool box and the man was known by his tool box whether he was a tradesman or not. And then after I was born my father moved down to Coventry, looking … for work. … after he’d been here a couple of years … the family moved down with him.

 

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Housing was always a problem for working people but the flood of migrants into Coventry produced a housing shortage which lasted almost thirty years. Moreover, most of the housing was small and lacking in modern conveniences, prompting frequent attempts to find something better. It was unusual for those born in one house still to be living there a decade later. The family would move from rented accommodation according to the price charged for it and the space provided, taking into account added children or those leaving home on marriage, thus making payment for unused space an extravagance. Irregular employment or unforeseen adversity could prompt a move to more restricted but cheaper living space. Marjorie Clark described her family’s mid-thirties move to a ‘nicer house’:

We lived in a house in Kingston Road without a bathroom, just a two up, two down. Mother and dad wanted a house with a bathroom and we had a chance to move into a slightly larger house. That was the reason we moved into Queensland Avenue.

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‘Two up, two down’ was the most common form of accommodation, even though many families had more than two children. Some older people lived in the old weavers’ or watchmakers’ houses with large windows and an extra floor that was one large room, originally a workshop. The Midland Daily Telegraph had been calling for three-bedroom houses to be built since 1919, as young families would grow and need more space. As it was, families with a number of children slept several to a bed in the back bedroom, with curtains dividing boys from girls, while parents slept in the front bedroom with the baby in the cot when required. Very large families would have older boys and girls sleeping in the downstairs back living room. In many homes, the front room would still be kept for special occasions. The usual furniture consisted of a large crockery cupboard, a dining table and set of chairs. By the mid-thirties, most families would also have a radio, and there might be a piano in the front room.

The home was ‘mother’s domain’. She did the cooking, washing and mending. Sometimes other family members – especially daughters – helped with the cooking and cleaning. Younger children were often assigned domestic tasks like swilling out the yard, polishing the fireplace, dusting mantelpieces, or polishing the ‘lino’ in the hall. A woman’s work was particularly laborious. Without washing machines, an exception in the thirties, washing clothes would take the best part of a day. Preparing meals also took time, and traditional mid-day dinner times for men and young workers in the family often involved them returning home from workplaces to eat cooked ‘dinners’, along with children of school age who were not entitled to free school meals. They would not be long out of the house before their evening meal was having to be planned and prepared. June Bream had to miss most of her last school year when she was thirteen because her mother was confined to bed after losing a baby. She had to look after her mother ill in bed, her father and two brothers and a sister. She went to school in the mornings one week, and the afternoons the next week, fitting her domestic duties in as best she could. When her father came home on a Friday night, wages night, she put her clean ‘piny’ on so that he could throw his wages in it. He told her, you’re the mother of the house … till your mother’s well now.

Although June missed some schooling due to her domestic responsibilities, an experience which was far from unique for girls of her age, the notion of the woman’s place being in the home was strongly reinforced by the education given to girls. June would normally have had lessons in sewing, cooking, and laundry, and in the senior, there was a specialist ‘housewifery’ teacher:

She used to teach you to be a housewife, a mother. They used to have this part (of the school) where it used to be like a house and you used to have old grates in it … and gas stoves where they were all black-leaded, and of course you had to do all that. … you had special times, and it was either cookery or washing and ironing … or housework. … you had to go in every room; you had a kitchen and a living room and a bedroom. And if you were doing cookery … you had to cook the meal in the morning and then the teacher and the rest of the class … used to stop for dinner and you used to have to wait on table. They showed you how to set the table.

Since most women stopped paid employment on marriage, the home became the focus for most women by their mid-twenties. Imelda Wintle remembered her mother’s working hours with appreciation:

She used to describe herself as a “poor old slave” … I mean she was on the go all the time. She used to do her own decorating and things like that, and cutting down clothes … and making do.

When money was tight, housewives would also take in washing, which they would also press and iron. Many Coventry housewives would also have a locally made Singer sewing machine, often received as a wedding gift, with which she would mend clothes as well as making clothes for the children. Most clothes were either made at home or by a local dressmaker or tailor. Many of the dressmakers would be ordinary housewives with a skill in dressmaking.

Sunday (afternoon) dinner was the best meal of the week, with the mother going personally to the butcher’s shop, knowing exactly what she was looking for. The week’s meals then followed a set pattern, with variations according to income. Kath Smith recalled:

Sundays we had roast, always … and of course we had the cold meat on Monday. And we always had … meat and potato pie on Tuesday. I suppose it could have been sausage, or something, on Wednesday or Thursday.  It was always fish on Friday and … a makeshift dinner on Saturday. It may be sometimes on a Saturday we would have fish ‘n’ chips instead of faggots and peas. … fish ‘n’ chips was thre’pence , tu’penny fish and a penny worth of chips … and on Sunday for tea we’d always have salmon and fruit and cream … a tin of salmon was eleven pence ha’penny and a tin of pineapple was five pence ha’penny …

The pattern was determined by other domestic tasks, like Tuesday being washday which meant the stew could be left to cook slowly and then finished off with pastry. Pay-day was usually on a Thursday or Friday, so the mid-week days often required ingenuity to keep the family going on shrinking resources. Feeding the breadwinner was the top priority, next came the children. The housewife often ate very little at these meals. Eva Shilton commented:

I’ve seen her eat bread and mustard, and she’d eat a sandwich of cabbage and things like that. Since, later on in life, I’ve mentioned it to her and she said, “Well, I couldn’t see you lot go without”. And she’d make do, she was a typical mother …heart and soul for her children … She didn’t like cooking but she would always cook for my dad because he liked the things we didn’t … I think with him having so much ill-health, when he was well she would look after him to keep him well.

The death of a parent was a dreadful experience for young children especially. A father’s death also meant the loss of the breadwinner. The family was in deep trouble unless older children were in employment, still single and part of the parental household. It often necessitated a move to cheaper accommodation and the mother’s quest for employment, at least cleaning work or taking in washing, or at best factory work, which was not well-paid where women were concerned because most female workers were young, single and cheap. The loss of a mother had its emotional impact and needed older members of the family to ‘rally round’. Vera Langford’s fiance was confronted with this situation when his mother died, having to return to Coventry from London to look after the younger children in a large family. It took him, his father and his elder brother to bring them up between them.

Industrial injury or recurrent illness suffered by a male breadwinner also led to a wife’s search for paid employment. Although fathers were ultimately responsible for disciplining children who misbehaved, mothers were usually responsible for nurturing ‘respectability’ and protecting the family’s reputation:

Well, we always classed ourselves as being respectable. “And don’t bring trouble home” and that kind of thing. I think if we had’ve done we would never have been able to enter the house again … my mother was like that … she meant it. She just wanted us all to be happy and respectable and live a decent life … and that was what we did; no one ever brought trouble to her …

In an immigrant family, relatives were not likely to be near at hand. In such circumstances, a family wedding was a major event. For native Coventrians, however, the city’s growth provided little reason to move and find work elsewhere, so local extended families gathered easily for wedding celebrations. Marriage was approached in a practical fashion. Vera Langford recalled her wedding at the Registry Office:

We hadn’t got any money for a big ‘do’. What we had got we kept, … we sort of spent on necessities … Just family.

Many couples started married life in inauspicious circumstances. The city’s motor industry provided many with a living, as many as it provided with spells of unemployment. Together with a number of other women, Marjorie Clark was made redundant from Standard Motors just six weeks before her wedding. Nonetheless, preparations for it had been going on for some time, so she was determined to go ahead with the celebrations:

We got engaged on New Year’s Day in 1937 and got married on New Year’s Day, 1938 … We saved enough for the deposit on the house, that was fifty pounds, … a lot of money then! … mother helped me in a lot of ways, even if it was only with a bottom drawer, that sort of thing. And for the year that I was engaged she had no money from me for my keep. I kept all my money … and saved every penny of it for the wedding and everything like that … It was a white wedding at an Anglican church and… it was bitterly cold … It was a very happy wedding … There was no reception, no photographer, no honeymoon because I was out of work and my husband was on short time … So my mother saved the turkey from Christmas, cooked it and we had that for the reception … at home. 

By 1939, Coventry car ownership was surpassed only by that of London. This increased mobility opened up new possibilities for travel. Cycles, motorcycles and sidecars were used particularly by young workers for some distance from the city with boyfriends or girlfriends. On the other hand, most women confined themselves to the home after marriage and some mothers rarely went out when the children were young. Mothers spent recreation time in the evening either sewing, knitting, making clothes, listening to the radio or reading. All this went on in the living room, keeping an eye on the children not yet in bed. Public houses in Coventry had long been the ‘marketplace of the working class’ and when work was erratic the companionship found in them might lead to information about which firms were hiring at their factory gates.  The dominance of engineering topics in pub discourse was the reason given by the head porter of J. B. Priestley’s hotel, during his stay in Coventry in 1933, for avoiding the city’s pubs:

You go into one of these pubs … All right. What do you hear? All about gears and magnetos and such-like. Honest. That’s right. They can’t talk about anything else here. Got motor cars on the brain, they have. I hardly ever go into a pub. I go home and have a read.

Matt Nelson, from a North-east mining community, remembered that it was taboo for a woman to enter a pub ‘up there’, as was also the case with pubs ‘down there’ in south Wales. In Coventry, however, wives might respectably join husbands in pubs or clubs, meeting others from the locality. However, for many from chapel-going working-class families who regarded themselves as ‘respectable’, they shared the views of the workers from the depressed areas, regarding pubs as ‘low dives’, not the sort of places that either they or their daughters should be found in. Priestley made a brief visit to the bar of his hotel, where a barmaid with an enormous bust and a wig was busy exchanging badinage with four friends, two male (drinking ‘Bass’) and two female (drinking Guinness):

“He did, didn’t he, Joe?”

“‘S ri’, ”

“Cor, he didn’t ever,”

“Well, you ask Florrie,”

“I don’t mean what you mean,”

” ‘s ri’ ”

“‘Ere, Joe you tell ‘er.”

Men and women would also go to the cinemas and theatres together and mothers sometimes went to ‘matinée’ film shows with female friends. Social circles were sometimes organised through local churches providing companions for women otherwise tied to the home, but mothers seemed to have little time to themselves: their ‘recreation’, such as it was, was often home-based and spent with the family, making clothes, baking cakes, and so on.

Although a number of the city’s firms had established recreation clubs by the late thirties which attracted large numbers of employees, very few women seemed to take up these opportunities. The Secretary of the Alfred Herbert Recreation Club, E. Thomas, observed in 1939 that a relatively small number of women were involved in club activities. The nature of women’s recreation at this period is not clear. Certainly, they constituted at least half of dancers, a large part, even a majority of cinema-goers and, at least in inner-city areas, a sizeable proportion of pub-goers. However, in addition to the domestic roles of married women, the practice of leaving work on marriage, either through a ‘marriage bar’ operated by the company they worked for, or through a choice made under familial and cultural pressure, excluded them from works’ clubs unless they were in the company of a husband who worked for the company. Married women were occasionally referred to in works magazines in recreational contexts, but it is not clear whether they were widows or were challenging the convention of ceasing to work after marriage. The involvement of unmarried women in works’ activities also presented something of an issue for employers like Courtaulds and London Laundry for whom recruitment and moral discipline among female employees was central to business efficiency.

When women workers did participate in works’ recreational activities, they were rarely given any control over their use of leisure facilities. The Alfred Herbert Recreation Club had no female members on its management committee until 1940 and the Magnet Club committee welcomed women only as representatives of all women’s sections such as women’s hockey. In part, this reflected the lack of women as foremen and skilled workers in these firms because it was from the ranks of these that the committee personnel were usually drawn. It is particularly noticeable that women were never chosen to represent activities that were evenly mixed, such as cycling and swimming. Firms’ magazines were always patronising towards women, and cartoons, jokes and pen-portraits cast them in subservient roles. Women’s pages were purely domestic in focus and rarely successful. For the most part, they did not celebrate the achievements of individual women workers, nor their collective activities. Therefore, they lacked the appeal that team news had for male workers.

Firms and clubs showed intermittent bursts of enthusiasm for encouraging women’s participation. In particular, many firms tried to capitalise on the keep-fit craze from the mid-thirties on , often under the auspices of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, mentioned in chapter one, since it had the attraction of providing women employees  with discipline and exercise at the same time, at little cost and in large numbers. Instructresses pointed out how it helped girls to enjoy life and work much better than before and that it was consistent with the belief that the success of the mass depends entirely on the individual. There is, however, no evidence that the League’s eugenic beliefs in the achievement of racial health and beauty by natural means were ever treated with any degree of seriousness in Coventry. Indeed, such initiatives met with varying success. The London Laundry branch of the Everywoman’s Health Movement folded after just over a year in 1939 through lack of support. It had never achieved a membership of more than twenty-five. The GEC Ladies’ Physical Culture Club, affiliated to the League of Health and Beauty, had over two hundred members in 1937 in two classes, but despite displays in Coventry, Birmingham and London, it experienced declining enthusiasm and finished after the outbreak of war.

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Not all women’s recreational activities were doomed to failure, however, and there are several examples of autonomous women’s sections and activities providing sociability for employees over long periods. Women’s sports, even women’s soccer, common during the First World War, continued until the ending of munitions work and the dispersal of the hostel labour force in 1918-19. By 1930, the Magnet Club ran two women’s cricket teams and several departmental teams, although these came in for a certain amount of ridicule in The Loudspeaker. In 1932, there was the first of series of women’s cycling camps. The fashion for departmental outings had meant that trips such as that of the coil-winders and the assembly section at GEC were virtually all-women affairs, and women began holding their own annual dinners as early as 1928. It is not apparent, however, how such occasions related to women’s prospects of advancement at work or their status within the company, unlike the complex rituals of competitive displays at full staff dances.

The relationship between works social clubs and the recreation of the city as a whole was at its closest, and most beneficial to both parties, in the regular dances which were held on factory premises. Dances were already being put on by some of the city’s chief companies in 1921. There were only two commercial ballrooms, the Gaumont and the Rialto, in Coventry, so the factories provided the main alternative to church hall dances, and their dancehalls and ballrooms were far grander. They also had the specially sprung floors which were favoured by dancing enthusiasts. The dance craze was most popular among skilled manual workers and clerical staff, people who had served time and could afford to pay 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. for admission. For them, the refined, formalised ritual of the dance halls provided an appropriate setting for courtship and social aspiration.The halls banned drink, although men would go to the pubs first, and the doors were closed at 9.30 in order to exclude those who had drunk too much. Young women, who therefore arrived first, at about 8 p.m., would not tolerate men whose breath revealed that they had spent too much of the intervening time in the pub. Men were also expected to carry a second handkerchief for their right hand so that they didn’t soil their partner’s dresses, or inadvertently touch any exposed skin.

Dancing was enjoyed most by the young women, who spent time at home and work trying out the latest steps with sisters and friends, often to the radio or gramophone. The complexity of the dances of the thirties – foxtrots, waltzes, quicksteps and tangos, required tuition, and men needed to be confident of their dancing before they could be among the first to venture out onto the floor. Ability to dance was, therefore, an asset in successful courtship, and while many learnt from their sisters or other female acquaintances, others went to one of the city’s many dancing schools. There were beginners’ nights at the major ballrooms. The dance halls also offered camaraderie. Groups from different areas of town would rendezvous at set pitches in each dance hall, but courtship no doubt provided the basic motivation. Male toolroom employees met few women at work because they were segregated by skill and they rarely met the office and shop girls they aspired to marry. Courting couples were left to other areas of the dance floor where they would try to be lost to the group.

No doubt, there were some for whom the attraction of a particular hall lay in its resident dance band. The biggest firms’ hall, which most effectively escaped the canteen atmosphere and rivalled purpose-built commercial halls, was the GEC ballroom (shown below), often referred to as ‘The Connor’. Attendances were large, averaging over six hundred by 1936. Special occasions, in particular, the New Year’s Eve dances, drew massive audiences, as many as 1,350 in 1930. Attendances thereafter were limited to eight hundred, and in 1937 a second dance was organised for New Year’s Day, to accommodate the 750 dancers who had been unable to get tickets for the previous night.

 

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This ‘new leisure’ was the subject of many contemporary social investigations and surveys conducted by organisations such as the Pilgrim Trust and the NCSS. Following his visit to Coventry in January 1939, Sir William Deedes wrote to its local Employment Exchange Officer, Philip Handley, to express his alarm at what he referred to as a lack of social and recreational provision in the form of community centres, boys’ clubs, churches and hostels. His distaste for working class preferences in leisure activities is clear from the following extract from his subsequent report, which he attached to his letter:

Cinemas are thronged and on a Saturday afternoon queues ‘a quarter-mile-long’ and mainly of young people are to be seen. I was informed that on Saturday and Sunday nights also Road Houses within a twenty-mile radius of Coventry are full of young people dancing and entertaining themselves. The night I was there a small road house four miles out of Coventry had fifty cars and four charabancs outside and some three hundred persons inside dancing. A football match the same afternoon was attended by thirty thousand to forty thousand people and ‘the Dogs’, I am told, never fail to draw large numbers… Is it proper to ask oneself whether, if there were better facilities for playing games, both out and indoor, use would be made of them? An answer to the question cannot be given in Coventry because the facilities are not there!

Handley might have replied that Deedes seemed to have ignored the facilities provided by local firms in making this assertion, but we do not have such a letter. Deedes may have had in mind the ‘model’ which Bournville in Birmingham provided in terms of recreational provision. J. B. Priestley, who visited Cadbury’s Birmingham ‘village’ in 1933, pointed out that they had long been in the top class of the school of benevolent and paternal employers. Their workers had been provided with magnificent recreation grounds and sports pavilions, with a large concert hall in the factory itself, where midday concerts are given, with dining-rooms, recreation-rooms, and drama facilities. The factory was almost as busy in the evenings as it was in the daytime, with games, music, lectures, classes, plays, hobbies, conferences all keeping the place in full swing. The membership of the various clubs and societies ran to several thousand for whom no form of self-improvement, except those that have their base in some extreme form of economic revolution, was denied. The only form of pastime which was precluded was the ancient one of getting drunk. The factory had all the facilities for leading a full and happy life and, he asserted, what progressive people all over the world are demanding for humanity was what the Cadbury workers already had. Those in charge insisted that the firm used no compulsion whatever and never moved to provide anything until it knew that there was a real demand for it. He added his conviction that…

 … whether all this is right or wrong, the employers themselves have acted in good faith … Is it right or wrong? … It is easy for some academic person, who has never spent an hour in a factory and does not really know how people live, to condemn it on philosophical grounds … Now there is no getting away from the fact that here, owing to this system of paternal employment, are factory workers who have better conditions, more security, and infinitely better chances leading a decent and happy life, than nearly all such factory workers elsewhere … who worked in bad conditions, who had no security, and whose employers did not care a rap if their people drink themselves silly in their leisure … No factory workers in Europe have ever been better off than these people. 

Despite this accolade, however, Priestley has his doubts as to whether, taking a longer view, it was good for people to see the factory where they worked as the centre of their whole lives, even if it offered them so much. A worker whose whole life was centred on the factory might, he suggested, enjoy many unusual luxuries, but one obvious ‘luxury’ they could not enjoy was a spirit of independence. Pensions and bonuses, works councils, factory publications, entertainments and dinners,  garden-parties and outings, all organised by the firm, were all very well, but they could easily create an atmosphere injurious to the personal growth and ‘self-help’ of the men and women working for the firm. Although he conceded that workers in such places as Bournville had so many solid benefits conferred upon them that they were better placed than the ordinary factory worker, who is probably not so content at either work or play, …

On the other hand, I for one would infinitely prefer to see workers combining to provide these benefits, or a reasonable proportion of them, for themselves, to see them forming associations far removed from the factory, to see them using their leisure, and demanding its increase, not as favoured employees but as citizens, free men and women.   

In reality, the ‘new leisure’ cut across class and regional demarcations, especially in Coventry, where it mixed, mingled and blended with older forms of leisure, some of which had migrated with their adherents from the older industrial areas. There were, evidently, many in key positions within the social service movement in both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ industrial areas, who regarded the development of mass, commercial forms of entertainment  as undermining their patronage, and when these critics wrote of the lack of leisure provision or of the absence of a communal ethos, they were writing from an ‘establishment’ perspective. Meanwhile, the Coventrian workers themselves, whether newcomers or ‘established’ citizens, both at work and at play, were re-modelling and re-making their city in their own image and shaking off the bonds of both patronage and paternalism.

The reactions of the migrants themselves to the social life of the new industry areas, documented in previous chapters, are more relevant in comprehending the wider cultural factors at work within the processes of migration and settlement. In Coventry, the streets themselves, the neighbourhoods and districts reflected the migration of labour. Some areas were completely cosmopolitan in this respect, with neighbours from all parts of the Midlands and North of England, Scotland and Ireland. In other neighbourhoods, there were concentrations of certain nationalities, Welsh, Scottish and Irish. Certainly, from the mid-1930s on, Coventry was a stronghold of the affluent worker. The roast every Sunday, the buying of your own house, early TV and car ownership all bear witness to rising living standards. Not everyone experienced the improvement in quite the same way or to the same degree, but enough did for it to constitute a trend. From the late thirties onwards, and especially with the onset of war and after, married women found that they had jobs to go to. Women began, increasingly, to have dual roles, providing the family with two wage packets, allowing many to enjoy a short period of affluence before the privations of war and the Blitz hit home.

Women at War in Coventry:

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Women in fire masks, Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London, 1941. Photo by Lee Miller.

While the main onslaught of the ‘Blitz’ of the autumn of 1940 was directed at the capital, other ports and cities were subjected to severe attacks over short, concentrated periods, or to single raids. The ten-hour incendiary and explosive blitz upon Coventry caused tremendous damage, overnight, in November 1940 (I have written more extensively about this elsewhere on this site). Most of the ‘inner’ city’s factories sustained some damage, with the Daimler factory, the GEC and British Thomson Houston being badly hit. In 1981, Muriel Jones, then a young worker in the city, recalled her experience of that night:

 The night of the November Blitz, I was on day shift with my sister and two friends. Just as we left work the siren sounded so we ran as fast as we could, hoping to get to our digs or a shelter. One of my friends stopped along the road to say goodbye to her sailor boyfriend; it was their last goodbye, they were never seen again. We made it to one of the four shelters, and ours was the only one that escaped the bombs, all the other occupants were killed. About sixty people. After the raid we had to dig ourselves out as best we could, to face all the damage. Around us our digs were gone along with a lot more houses. Our landlady and husband with them, although they were in a garden shelter.

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 Coventry,  14 November 1940

“Those of us who lost everything in the war will never forget. We don’t need anniversaries and war films and books, we just remember … everything seemed so vast, so much happened, we thought that nothing more could happen. We often believed that things would never come right again.”

– Two elderly ladies who had survived the blitz, interviewed by The Coventry Standard on the twentieth anniversary of the raid.

“Please don’t let it die Coventry. We managed to survive then when all the odds were against us. We can do it now if we try.”

 – A ‘young lady’ interviewed by The Coventry Evening Telegraph in 1980, about the previous evening’s television documentary.

 

Sources:

Denys Blakeway (2010), The Last Dance: 1936: The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray.

Mark Abrams (1945), The Condition of the British People, 1911-1945: A Study prepared for The Fabian Society. London: Victor Gollancz.

J. B. Priestley (1938), English Journey: Being a Rambling but Truthful Account of What One Man Saw and Heard and Felt and Thought During a Journey Through England During a Journey Through England During the Autumn of the Year 1933. Leipzig: Bernard Tauchnitz

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (eds.) (1986), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Asa Briggs, et.al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

René Cutforth (1976),  Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbott: David & Charles.

Andrew J. Chandler (1988), ‘The Re-Making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, c. 1920-40. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Cardiff.

 

Family Life, Labour and Leisure: The Forward March of Women In Britain, 1930-40 (Chapter Five).   Leave a comment

Chapter Five: Migrant Women, Work and Marriage in the West Midlands of England.

In BirminghamCoventry, and other areas of the West Midlands, where juveniles or young adults were placed in large-scale industrial concerns, the government Transference Scheme appears to have been more successful throughout the thirties. Such employment was better-paid and facilitated the maintenance of some measure of group identity in the work, domestic and leisure experiences of the transferees. The regional dimension to this contrast is highlighted by a 1934 memorandum from the Midland Divisional Controller to the Ministry:

There is really no comparison between the Midlands Division and say, London, because all the London vacancies are hotel and domestic posts.

Those local Juvenile Employment Committees who considered the transference work a priority ensured that the juveniles were met at the station and escorted to their lodgings. They might also ensure that social contacts were made and that parents were kept informed of the progress of their son or daughter. The officers of the Birmingham Juvenile Employment Bureau were involved with the Merthyr Bureau in each stage of the transference process. They visited Merthyr to interview the juveniles and to explain to their parents the various types of vacancies available. In 1937, this resulted in sixteen boys and seven girls being transferred. The link between the local officials led to a firm of electrical engineers employing an entire family from Merthyr. They were given a bungalow from which the mother looked after a number of the apprentices. Much of this work was undertaken under the auspices of the special After Care Committee of the JEC, and the effectiveness of their work was recorded by A J Lush, in his report for the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service:

A large number from South Wales have secured employment in the area of South Birmingham. It is gratifying to note that from the employers, comparitively few complaints have been received. With regard to the boys themselves, the general difficulty experienced is that having been in Birmingham for a month or two, they wish to experiment by changing their lodgings and also their jobs, just to see what other kinds of work and other parts of Birmingham are like…

The lack of after-care provision in smaller ‘Black Country’ townships such as Cradley Heath and Halesowen was reported as being the cause of much concern to Ministry officials. On the other hand, juvenile transference to Coventry and Rugby was said to be of fairly considerable dimensions. The relative success of the Scheme to these centres was due in no small part to the ability of local officials to change attitudes among local employers. At the beginning of 1928, the Coventry District Engineering Employers’ Association was ‘unanimous’ in its opinion that it was very dangerous proceeding to bring large numbers of boys and girls into any area without parental control. By 1937, the employers’ attitudes had changed to the extent that they were willing to consider the provision of a hostel, as in Birmingham, and to guarantee continuous employment for the juveniles over a period of twelve months.

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In Coventry, Welsh immigrants were not as concentrated in either domestic or industrial terms as they were in Cowley. In 1937, the Juvenile Employment Committee recognised that the wide dissemination throughout the city of those requiring supervision was a major cause for concern. Oral evidence reveals that it was also a cause of anxiety and homesickness among many of the immigrants. However, although it was more difficult to recreate a sense of neighbourhood, it would be wrong to assume that the majority of immigrants felt scattered and isolated. In the first place, there were pockets of Welsh immigrants in Longford, Holbrooks and Wyken. The Hen Lane estate, in particular, was said to have a large concentration of Welsh workers. Secondly, there is evidence that familial and fraternal relationships were just as significant as in Cowley. Labour was engaged in a similar way, usually at the factory gates, except that Coventry firms actively recruited in the depressed areas by means of advertisements and ‘scouts’. This encouraged still further the tendency towards networked migration, and many men in well-paid jobs found definite openings for friends and relatives. Some, like Haydn Roberts, were ‘second stage’ migrants, attracted to Coventry from metropolitan London by the better pay and more secure terms of employment on offer. The prospect of a more settled, married life in Coventry was a huge incentive:

I met my fist wife, she was a girl from Nantymoel. She was a maid in Northwood College for girls… I went to Nantymoel and met Bill Narberth and the bands… He came to Coventry in 1934 to play for Vauxhall Crossroads Band… He got a job in Alfred Herbert’s in the hardening shop. He came up for the Band… they wanted cornet players in the Vauxhall and he applied and got the job… and quite a few others… I met Bill and he was talking about the money he earned… So I threw up my job and got a single ticket, came up by train… There were quite a few Welsh people around that area in Longford and Holbrooks because the factories were there… Herberts, the Gasworks, Morris Bodies and Morris Engines.

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The importance of these kinship and friendship networks can be traced through the electoral registers and civic directories of the period, as well as from The Roll of the Fallen: A Record of Citizens of Coventry who fell in the Second World War, 1939-45 (published in 1945, including the birthplaces of those killed in action, 1939-45/ by enemy action, i.e. bombing of the City in 1940-41) and the Queens Road Baptist Church Roll. From these, it is possible to reconstruct eighty-six ‘Welsh households’ in Coventry, forty-eight of which showed clear signs of sub-letting, in many cases to obvious adult relatives or friends of Welsh origin. Jehu Shepherd married and bought a house in 1939, but he was one of the earliest Rhondda immigrants to Coventry, who remained a powerful influence on Coventry Welsh life throughout the period and well beyond. He was one of a family of nine, all of whom left Wales. He left the Rhondda just before the General Strike and was found a job at the Morris Works by his brother-in-law, going to live in his sister’s house. He then found a job at the same factory for his brother Fred, who brought his wife Gwenllian with him, and they were followed by Haydn who got a job at Courtaulds. Another sister, Elizabeth and her husband moved to Coventry in 1927. The family in general, and Jehu, in particular, appear to have given early cohesion to the Welsh community in Coventry, especially through the formation of the Coventry Welsh Glee Singers. He met and married Mary, from Ystradgynlais, in Coventry in the late thirties, and they bought a house together in 1939. She was a nurse who later became a senior sister and ward matron in the Gulson Road Hospital and Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital in the post-war NHS.

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Aneurin Bevan, Minister for Health and Housing, meeting NHS nursing staff.

Jehu was also choirmaster at Queens Road Baptist Church from 1926, but in 1937 he decided that he had to give up this duty in favour of keeping the Gleemen together because most of them didn’t go to church, some of them liked a drink… and he felt he must keep them together. In February 1929, the Society and the Gleemen had combined to give a performance in aid of the Lord Mayor of Coventry’s Fund for the Distressed Areas. The Midland Daily Telegraph praised the careful training given by Mr Shepherd to his singers during their weekly rehearsals. The exiles’ empathy with those they had left behind in the valleys was portrayed to full effect when Miss Chrissie Thomas played God Bless the Prince of Wales on her mandolin, in reference to the Prince’s recent visit to the distressed areas. 

There can be little doubt that, as with the Glee Singers, the majority of the Welsh immigrants to Coventry did not attend church regularly, and that the working men’s clubs in Holbrooks and Wyken were more important centres of Welsh life than were Queens Road Baptist Church or West Orchard Congregational Church. Nonetheless, these churches attracted larger numbers of them than their counterparts in London. The attractiveness of these chapels was due, in no small part, to their inspirational Welsh Ministers, Howard Ingli James and Ivor Reece, respectively. From his induction in 1931, Ingli James provided strong leadership for those among the Welsh who were chapel-goers. When Mary Nicholas and Martha Jones, sisters from Tonypandy, first started attending Queens Road on arrival in Coventry in 1932, they found that there were a great many Welsh already in the congregation. In his sermons, Ingli James affirmed to a wide audience, the society and culture from which they had come, as Mary Shepherd, recalled:

I always remember once when he talked about the miners he said, “I had a load of coal and paid for it the other day – did I say ‘paid for it’ ? No, never, when I think what those poor men had to go through to get that coal for me to enjoy – and then I say, ‘I paid for it’ – no money would pay for what they did!” I can see him now in that pulpit.     

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The Nuffield Survey’s war-time report on Coventry and East Warwickshire found that the City’s sixty thousand houses and shops were a goodly number for the population as it stood at the outbreak of war and that, although large houses were few, the great majority of houses provided accommodation superior to the average for the whole country. Mary Nicholas, originally from the Rhondda, described her reaction to the change in accommodation which her move to Coventry involved:

Comparing the house I was living in with the house I came from I thought I was in heaven. I thought of the old house and black leading the grates…

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In Birmingham, the connection with a particular coalfield area again played an important part in establishing a significant immigrant community. A significant proportion of those who settled in South West Birmingham during the period was from the Monmouthshire mining villages of Blaina, Nantyglo and Risca. In particular, there seems to have been a close link between Cadbury’s at Bournville and the authorities and officials in Blaina and Nantyglo; a large number of juvenile transferees, girls and boys, from this area went to Bournville direct from secondary school. The Quaker-founded Company had always operated a strict marriage bar, so there was a constant demand for single women. J. B. Priestley described the type of work done by the young women at the ‘works’ when he visited in the Autumn of 1933:

The manufacture of chocolate is a much more elaborate process (than that of cocoa) … there were miles of it, and thousands of men and girls, very spruce in overalls, looking after the hundred-and-one machines that pounded and churned and cooled and weighed and packed the chocolate, that covered the various bits of confectionery with chocolate, that printed labels and wrappers and cut them up and stuck them onand then packed everything into boxes that some other machine had made. The most impressive room I have ever seen in a factory was that in which the cardboard boxes were made and the labels, in that shiny purple or crimson paper, were being printed: there is a kind of gangway running down the length of it, perhaps twenty feet from the floor, and from this you had a most astonishing view of hundreds of white-capped girls seeing that the greedy machines were properly fed with coloured paper and ink and cardboard. In some smaller rooms there was hardly any machinery. In one of them I saw a lot of girls neatly cutting up green and brown cakes of marzipan into pretty little pieces; and they all seemed to be enjoying themselves; though I was told that actually they preferred to do something monotonous with the machines. I know now the life history of an almond whirl. There is a little mechanical device that makes the whirl on the top, as deft as you please. I saw thousands of marsh-mallows hurrying on an endless moving band… to the slow cascade of chocolate that swallowed them for a moment and then turned them out on the other side, to be cooled, as genuine chocolate marsh-mallows…

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There was a girl whose duty it was, for forty-two hours a week, to watch those marsh-mallows hurrying towards their chocolate Niagara. “Wouldn’t that girl be furious,” I sad to the director who was showing me round, “if she found that her Christmas present was a box of chocolate marsh-mallows?” But he was not at all sure. “We consider our staff among our best customers,” he told me. … Such is the passion now for chocolate that though you spend all your days helping to make it, though you smell and breathe it from morning until night, you must munch away like the rest of the world. This says a good deal for the purity of the processes, which seemed to me exemplary…  

By the autumn of 1934, the Monmouthshire migrants were well-enough settled to form an organisation known as the Birmingham Association for the Relief of the Distressed Areas (BARDA), together with immigrants from Durham. Its aims were to help families who already had one or more members settled in Birmingham to remove their homes to the city. It had a membership of about two hundred, whose meetings were held at the Friends’ Meeting House in Cotteridge, just along the Bristol Road from Bournville. Over the period over a hundred individual members of families were reunited in this way, and the families were often related. Fifty-five of this hundred, including mothers not seeking paid work, had members in regular employment by the early months of 1937; twenty-two were still at school and only four of the fathers who had followed their daughters and sons to Birmingham were without full-time, permanent work. Of these four, two were approaching pensionable age, and the other two had temporary or part-time work.

Once a young migrant had become sufficiently established to ask her or his parents to join them and make a home, the Association set to work finding a house for them. Since landlords were averse to accepting unemployed tenants, BARDA’s recommendation of an employed son or daughter as a responsible tenant helped to overcome this problem.In some cases, houses were purchased on a new estate from a fund created for the purpose and in others, help was given in order for families to furnish their new homes adequately. By these means, BARDA enabled a large number families to become independent, self-supporting and self-confident. Its meetings provided an opportunity for them to come together, deal collectively with individual problems of settlement and family reunification and to discuss the broader issues relating to unemployment, migration and the problems of the distressed areas.

BARDA entered into lengthy correspondence concerning the way in which the means test regulations presented a major obstacle to the reunification of families in Birmingham. Parents were already faced with the prospect additional household expenditure in the provision of equipment for the reunited family, in the replacement of clothing and in the higher costs of lighting and heating which obtained in Birmingham. They were therefore understandably reluctant to move unless they could be sure that the unemployment allowances would not be decreased before they had had a reasonable period to look for work and establish the household. BARDA had written to various officials, setting out specific cases which showed the obstructiveness of the regulations to their work:

The kind of case we have specially in mind is of a family where two youths over school age have been successful in obtaining employment in Birmingham  – one in a regular position and the other in more temporary employment. The father is about forty-two years and has a wife and two children of school age. Presumably, whilst living in a distressed area the parents with their two children obtain full public assistance but if they transfer to live with their two sons,… they would receive no public assistance as the wages of the two sons would be viewed as sufficient for the household. There would be the added risk that the one son in temporary employment might become unemployed so that the parents and four children would be dependent upon the earnings of one youth. The alternative appears to be for the family to continue to receive public assistance until they qualify for old age pension, in which case the two children, now of school age, might also become a charge on the public assistance. Whereas if the whole family removed to this area there might be a prospect of the whole family obtaining employment. 

This case illustrates graphically the disjunction which existed between unemployment policy and voluntary migration and why so many migrants chose to have nothing to do with the transference schemes of the Ministry of Labour. To solve this most peculiar paradox in policy, BARDA advocated that no deductions should be made from parental unemployment allowances for a minimum of six months. Nevertheless, its advocacy was of no avail. Although, as an example of autonomous organisation of migration, BARDA was successful in attracting interest in government and the national press, its practical influence was limited to South West Birmingham and did not extend to the nearby town of Smethwick, where Rhondda people had been able to find homes in close proximity to each other and were working in the Tangyies Munitions Factory by 1936-37. Instead, they made good use of the local chapels and, as in Oxford and Coventry, formed a male voice choir. However, the Welsh causes which existed in the centre of Birmingham, like those in London, had been founded in the early and mid-nineteenth century, their congregations mainly made up of professional, Welsh-speaking people from rural Wales, the language of worship also being Welsh. The mostly English-speaking immigrants from Monmouthshire who were able to afford the bus fare into the city centre soon found that they had little in common with their Welsh-speaking country cousins. The new exiles took little interest in the activities of the two Welsh societies, Y Brythoniad and Y Cymrodorion.

Haydn Roberts, who had moved from London to Coventry in the mid-thirties, and became foreman at the GEC, recalled how trade unionism spread to the factory from the Standard Works when the latter sacked a lot of trade union members. He remembered a Welsh shop steward in the Model Room who had been at the Standard Works and was a bit militant because Sir John Black had kowtowed to them. Again, although Roberts acknowledged the importance of strong trade union traditions to the mining community he had left as a teenager, he had seen no need for those traditions in the new industrial context in which he found himself. He had not been a miner or a member of the SWMF himself, but had followed his father’s sense of grievance against the mine owners, and saw no relevance in applying these grievances to his new industrial context. Moreover, the jobs and processes involved at the GEC were far more diverse than at the Standard Works, and Roberts was responsible for the supervision of ‘girls’ or ladies who had just got married but continued to work on a part-time track. Although women workers elsewhere in Coventry had been instrumental in resisting the introduction of the Bedaux System, involving the speeding-up of production lines, according to Roberts the GEC women were uninterested in trade unionism. Some of these women were Welsh in origin, and all of them shared Roberts’ perception of their new environment. However, as noted in chapter three, there were some ‘wildcat’ or spontaneous strikes involving women in the late thirties, but these occurred on the full-time track involving younger, single women.

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When J. B. Priestley visited the city in 1933, there were still plenty of unemployed there, about twelve thousand he was told. The graph above shows this estimate to be quite accurate for the time of year (autumn) of his visit. By then, the city had got well past the worst period of the depression in 1931-32, when unemployment had risen to over twenty percent. Factories that were working on short time in that period, were back on double shifts in 1933. He saw their lights and heard the deep roar of their machinery, late that night of his sojourn.

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In Coventry, the factors which led to Labour gaining control of the City Council in the 1937 municipal elections were more complex than in either Oxford or Birmingham. They included a general shift away from shop-floor ‘syndicalism’ towards a more rounded concept of municipal socialism. Unlike in the Chamberlains’ Birmingham, the ruling Liberal-Conservative Progressive Coalition in Coventry had failed to respond to the demands of a spiralling population through proper planning and provision of social services. The Labour ‘take-over’ was also greatly facilitated by the mushroom growth of a large individual membership section in the local Party which enabled many managerial, professional and clerical workers to play an increasingly important role alongside shop stewards and trade union officials. This growth was carefully nurtured by a number of key local politicians, shaping the Party into an organisation which was capable of winning elections and of running the City successfully. In addition, the radical Liberalism of many chapel-goers in the City became detached from its more Gladstonian leadership, much of it being transferred into support for the Labour Party.

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This ideological shift was reinforced by the Christian Socialism advocated by leading Unitarian, Methodist and Baptist preachers, some of whom defied deacons and elders to speak on Labour platforms. This ‘social gospel’ influence was fuelled by the influx of workers from the depressed areas in general, and South Wales in particular, where it was still comparatively strong among those who had continued to attend the Nonconformist chapels, as an alternative to the outright Marxism of many in the SWMF. The Progressive candidates, Tories and Liberals, often made the mistake of disparaging this shift by playing upon the fears and prejudices of ‘old Coventrian’ electors. They suggested that Labour’s 1937 victory resulted from the coming of so many of the Labour Party’s supporters to Coventry, whom they referred to as the sweepings of Great Britain. The local Labour leader, George Hodgkinson, however, considered that the low turn-out in 1938 was

… an index that the municipal conscience was by no means fully developed, probably through the fact that many newcomers had not got their roots in Coventry and so had not formed political allegiances. 

Clearly, whilst the immigrants may have been predominantly socialist in outlook, this did not mean that this general allegiance was automatically and immediately translated into a particular interest in local politics. Even by 1937-38, many migrants did not regard their situations in Coventry as anything more than temporary, especially with the economic recovery of South Wales underway, and therefore did not see themselves as having the right and/or duty to vote as citizens of Coventry. Comparisons of oral evidence with the electoral registers reveal that many were not registered to vote for as long as five years after their arrival in Coventry. In many cases, this was due to the temporary nature of their lodgings, which resulted in multiple sub-lettings and transient residence among the migrants. They were far more scattered around the city than their counterparts in Cowley and were therefore not as settled by the late 1930s. Thus, the argument advanced by The Midland Daily Telegraph and other Conservative agencies within the City in November 1937 that the large influx of labour from socialist areas was responsible for Labour’s victory reflected their belief in the myth of the old Coventrian at least as much as it did the reality of the situation.

There were a number of Welsh workers, some of them women, who came to the City in the late 1930s and who began to play a significant role in local politics following the war. William Parfitt started work in the mines at Tylorstown in the Rhondda at the age of fourteen, becoming Secretary of his Lodge at the age of twenty-one. In December 1926, he appeared in Court with a number of others, charged with riotous assembly at Tylorstown for leading a crowd who attacked a crane being used to transfer coal from a dump to be sent to Tonyrefail. When Sergeant Evans spoke to Parfitt, he replied we are driven to it, we cannot help ourselves. He later became an organiser for the National Council of Labour Colleges, enduring periods of unemployment before leaving the Rhondda. William Parfitt arrived in Coventry in 1937 and began work as a milling machinist in the Daimler factory. After the war, he became Industrial Relations Officer for the National Coal Board. He was elected to the City Council in 1945 and twenty years later became Lord Mayor of Coventry.

Harry Richards was also born in the Rhondda, at Tonypandy, in 1922. On moving to Coventry in 1939, he became an apprentice draughtsman at Armstrong Siddeley Motors and a design draughtsman at Morris Motors. He then became a schoolteacher after the war and was elected to the City Council in 1954. Like Parfitt, he went on to become Lord Mayor in 1979-80. No doubt Parfitt, Richards and other immigrants who became involved in post-war politics, shared the motivation for their involvement which arose out of the determination of both leaders and led to attain better living conditions than those which most of the immigrants from the coalfields had been forced to endure for much of the inter-war period. Similarly, Councillor Elsie Jones,   made the following poetic contribution in 1958, celebrating twenty-one years of Labour rule in the City, in which she both echoed and transposed some of the themes she drew from Llewellyn’s 1939 book and the subsequent popular war-time film:

Born and reared in a mining area I realised the need for reforms very early in life –

Because I loved light and sunshine I knew men and young boys who, during winter, seldom saw either –

Because I loved peace and a tranquil home, and I saw peaceful men become violent at the spectacle of their semi-starved families –

Because I loved music and culture, and the arts, and I knew boys and girls with wonderful natural gifts who would never get a chance to express them –

Because I loved freedom and independence, and saw proud men grovelling for the ‘privilege’ of working for a week for a week road-mending.

How green and beautiful was my valley.

How black the despair in the hearts of its people.

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It is significant that when the post-1945 Labour Government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Aneurin Bevan chose to go to Coventry to defend it. It would seem that his choice may not have been entirely coincidental, as when he issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue, he was given…

…a great reception from the people of Coventry, in particular from members of the Welsh community, many of whom knew him in their native valleys. 

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The Cheylesmore Estate in Coventry, newly built after the war.

The growth of municipal socialism in the City from 1937 onwards can clearly be seen as a practical expression of that impetus to reform, progress and planning which Bevan himself epitomised. Another Welsh ‘Dick Whittington’, this time in Birmingham, was William Tegfryn Bowen, who worked as a miner in the Rhondda between 1916 and 1926 before leaving for Birmingham in 1927.  He studied economics, social services and philosophy at Fircroft College in Selly Oak before going to work at the Austin Motor Company’s works further down the Bristol Road in 1928. There he led a strike against the introduction of the Bedaux system in defiance of more senior union officials. Following this, he endured several periods of unemployment and odd-jobbing until the war, when he became a City Councillor in 1941, and an Alderman in 1945. Between 1946 and 1949 he was both Chairman of the Council Labour group and Chairman of the Health Committee. This latter position led to his appointment as a member of the Executive Council of the NHS and also as a member of the Regional Hospital Board. Effectively, he was Bevan’s architect of the NHS in Birmingham, a city which, under the Chamberlain ‘dynasty’, had been first a Liberal Unionist and then a Tory stronghold for many decades since mid-Victorian times. On becoming Lord Mayor in 1952, Bowen was asked to account for Labour’s currently and apparently secure hold on the City. He referred to the large influx of workers from other areas, with a different political outlook.

In Coventry, from 1929 onwards, it was musical engagements which enabled Philip Handley, the City’s Employment Officer, to champion the immigrant cause, often in the teeth of criticism from other civic leaders, trade unionists and employers, and to attempt to construct a far more positive narrative and vision of a progressive, cosmopolitan city:

The Welshman’s love of music and art, the Irishman’s physical vigour and courage, the Scotsman’s canny thoroughness, the tough fibre of the Northumbrian, the enterprise of the Lancastrian – Yes, the Coventrian of twenty-five years hence should be a better man in body and possibly in brain… 

Of course, Handley meant ‘man’ in the generic sense, and the contribution of these ‘new Coventrians’ of both genders in terms of ‘brain’ cannot be underestimated or marginalised, certainly not in the second and third generations. Through the better system of secondary education which existed at that time in Wales and the high standard of adult education in the coalfield communities, the new industry towns acquired significant numbers of youngsters whose talents lay in their heads as well as their hands. In their new environment, there were a number of ways in which these talents could be expressed. As was also the case in Cowley, Welsh families had a more positive attitude towards education, so that local schools, both elementary and secondary, suddenly found themselves with some very able and highly motivated pupils, a theme which was revisited by local politicians after the war.

There is some evidence to suggest that in Coventry the impact of these immigrant children was quite dramatic, both in terms of quantity and quality. In 1936-37, the number of school children admitted from other districts exceeded those leaving Coventry by more than 1,100. In February 1938 The Midland Daily Telegraph then carried out research for a major report entitled Coventry as the Nation’s School in which it claimed that Coventry’s school problem was being aggravated by the influx of newcomers from the Special Areas. For the previous twelve months, it went on, children had been pouring into the city at a rate of a hundred a month. Most of them went to live on the new housing estates on the city’s outskirts where few schools had been built. Sufficient children were moving into the city every year to fill ‘two good-sized schools’ and although there were enough school places available throughout the city to accommodate the newcomers, the schools were in the wrong places.

Coventry’s schools remained significantly more overcrowded than the national average throughout the decade, and despite the increasing press speculation, no new secondary schools were built, although six new elementary schools were added between 1935 and 1939. Despite this, throughout the period 1925-37, the cost of elementary education per child Coventry schools remained below the average cost in county boroughs in England and Wales. Whilst the school rolls were falling in most English authorities, in Coventry they were rising sharply. It is in this context that the Education Committee’s gradual shift towards the idea of building bipartite comprehensive schools, combining grammar and technical ‘streams’ began in the late 1930s. The idea of academic and technical secondary education working in tandem on the same sites made sense as a solution to cater for the sons and daughters of immigrants who valued secondary education. The emphasis which was placed on education in coalfield societies was a positive dividend of interwar migration to the City’s schools after the war.

There was also a dearth of shopping and general social facilities in Coventry, throwing an increased burden on the central shopping area. Philip Handley, as the Employment Exchange Officer, was clear that the City’s obsession with the elemental question of housing and employment had been to the exclusion of any significant attempt to develop social and cultural amenities, with the result that the new housing areas lacked halls, churches and libraries. Since he was responsible for the reception and after-care of young immigrants, he shared some of the concerns of those in the social service movement who viewed the ‘new areas’ as lacking the ‘right sort’ of social and cultural institutions to receive them. In particular, in his correspondence with Sir William Deedes, he referred to the problems they faced in the ‘settling in’ period, during which the public house and the cinema are more attractive than the strange church which may be, and usually is, some distance away. 

Many who migrated, both men and women, were in a poor physical condition and sometimes unable to stand the strain of their new employment, and others were simply not fit enough to find employment in the first place. Social and healthcare services often simply could not cope with the problems that the influx of men and women on the borderline destitution created. In the year 1935-36, despite an increase in the population of Oxford of two thousand, only one bed was added to the city’s hospitals. In Coventry, the Public Assistance Committee was forced to either make the cases of sick immigrants chargeable to the local authority from which they came or remove them entirely, as was the case with one family from Burry Port. Lack of adequate financial provision for young adults in time of sickness was one of the main causes of their early return to the depressed areas. Those whose migration and settlement were aided by financial support from voluntary agencies stood a greater chance of ‘survival’ in the new area, as in this case:

Case E434. This family came from a distressed area, to seek work, the husband having been out of work for four years. The United Services Fund … made a grant for the removal of the household goods and supplied the railway fares. The man obtained work after a few weeks as a labourer, earning two pounds ten shillings weekly. The eldest daughter, aged seventeen, was found a situation, which proved very satisfactory. The daughter of fourteen , who had been a tubercular subject most of her childhood was in a debilitated state of health, and the CCAS (Coventry City Aid Society) did not think she should take up work until she was quite strong. She was sent to Eastbourne for three weeks, and was placed in a situation on her return. Unfortunately, the husband, a builder’s labourer, contracted rheumatism.  Through the office he was sent to Droitwich for three weeks. He is convalescing at the present time, and we hope will soon be back to work in some occupation more suited to his health.

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Coventry’s churches and chapels provide ample evidence of religious activity, the diversity of which seems a natural corollary of mass migration from numerous points of origin with attendant religious traditions. All children attended Sunday school, with parental encouragement, either to get them out of the house or to get that religious instruction which even agnostic guardians seem to have regarded as a positive stage in constructing a morality for their children.  For children, it was enjoyable; there were stories, and outings at least once a year. ‘A bun and a ha’penny’ attracted any waverers. Also, it provided companionship on an otherwise quiet day for boisterous young children. But family observance was a minority feature of Sundays in Coventry. Families, generally, did not pray together or say grace. A minority of families attended church or chapel regularly, perhaps sang in the choir, so that for those children Sunday school was only one of a number of religious services they might participate in on a Sunday.

As has been stated already, in Coventry many of the Welsh immigrants were attracted to those churches with Welsh ministers, most notably to the ministry of Howard Ingli James at Queen’s Road Baptist Church and Ivor Reece at West Orchard Street Congregational Church. Since the Welsh population in Coventry was not as geographically concentrated and as stable as in Cowley, it was not as easy for the immigrants to be appointed as deacons. Nevertheless, the impact of immigration upon the congregation and upon the city was a major factor in the development and direction of Ingli James’ ministry, as his 1936 article for The Midland Daily Telegraph reveals:

Coventry is today faced with the difficult task of welding a host of newcomers into a community, in fact of making a city, which is not the same thing as a mere collection of streets, or conglomeration of people…  Almost every week strangers appear in our congregation, often in such numbers that one has difficulty in getting into touch with them. Many are young, and trying their wings for the first time. It is an important part of our work to meet their needs both spiritual and social, to provide them with a place where they may find friends and feel at home.

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Above: Coventry City centre (Broadgate) in 1939

James wrote in his book Communism and the Christian Faith in 1945, that he had had little contact with either socialists or communists during his time as a minister in Swansea in the twenties and early thirties, but had become ‘radicalised’ through his contact with the young migrants in his congregation and, no doubt, by the municipal socialists he met in the city more widely. Finding friends was often a dilemma faced by the Welsh immigrants to Coventry, as in Cowley. In Coventry, the marked tendency for Welsh women to select their own countrywomen as friends rather than their immediate neighbours was noted in the University of Birmingham’s Survey of the early 1950s. So, too, were the continuing stereotypes of the immigrants used by ‘Coventrians’. In particular, Coventrian women thought of the women from the older industrial areas in their cities as being unemancipated by comparison with themselves. Interestingly, and paradoxically, as well as being labelled as ‘clannish’, ‘all out for themselves and ‘rootless’, they were also said to be ‘thrusting’, trying to get onto committees and councils whereby they could ‘run the town’, showing a lack of respect for the real Coventrians.

The confused and contradictory nature of this stereotyping reveals what Ginzberg described as the classic pattern of a dominant majority irked by a foreign minority in its midst, except that, by the 1950s, it was difficult to tell who the real Coventrians were. However, before the ‘Blitz’ of 1940, Coventry was primarily identified as an engineering city, as testified to by J. B. Priestley following his 1933 sojourn in the city. In his English Journey, he describes walking at night to a hill from which he had a good view of the old constellations remotely and mildly beaming, and the new Morris works, a tower of steel and glass, flashing above the city of gears and crank-shafts. Its high-paid factory work acted as a powerful magnet to migrants from far and wide, who generally found in it a welcoming working-class city without the social hierarchy which existed in Oxford and London and, to a lesser extent, in Birmingham. Although many of the women migrants may not, at first, have gone into the factories, this changed dramatically after 1936, with the growing demands of the shadow factories for labour, and they also made a broader contribution to working-class life and politics throughout the city.

(to be concluded… )

Posted May 3, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Assimilation, Birmingham, Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Coalfields, Commonwealth, Coventry, democracy, Elementary School, Empire, Factories, History, Immigration, Integration, Marriage, marriage 'bar', Marxism, Maternity, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, Mythology, Narrative, Nonconformist Chapels, Oxford, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Respectability, Second World War, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, Victorian, Wales, Warfare, Women at War, Women's History, World War Two

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Family Life, Labour and Leisure: The Forward March of Women In Britain, 1930-40 (Chapter Three)   Leave a comment

Chapter Three: Migrant Women, Work and Marriage:

In the early 1930s, migration to the new factories for both men and women was hampered by prevailing economic conditions. Despite payments of fares and expenses for the removal of household goods, only 1,200 families had been removed from the depressed areas under the provisions of the Transference Scheme up to the end of 1931. In the seven years which followed, approximately ten thousand more families migrated under government assistance. Apart from the difficulties associated with finding employment for adults in the ‘new areas’ during the general depression, local Ministry officials at both ends of the transference process were also very conservative in procedure, rarely committing time and resources to finding openings for families in the same way as Juvenile Employment Officers were prepared to in the case of young men and women moving independently of their parents.

For much of the period, Ministry officials would only advance rail fares in cases where the transferee had definite employment to go to. In 1935, however, this was broadened to the provision of free fares plus a loan equivalent to one week’s wages for men with good prospects of finding work. Since such prospects were dependent upon the residence in the ‘new area’ of friends and relatives, transference in this form amounted to the subsiding of voluntary migration. Even then, the subsidy was ‘hedged around’ by bureaucratic stipulations, which deterred people already suspicious of government motives and cautious about making a commitment to permanent resettlement, to become entangled in this way.

The state subsidies were sometimes made use of, however, when the head of a family had established himself a new area and was confident enough of the of the prospects for his family to apply for a grant to help with removal expenses. The assistance in this form was in the region of ten pounds in the mid-thirties, and this was probably the most successful aspect of the adult transference scheme. However, its successful operation came too late for large numbers of actual and potential Welsh migrant families. In the case of the Oxford Exchange District, with its huge Morris and Pressed Steel car plants in Cowley, hardly any use was made of the Family Transference Scheme until 1933 when thirteen families were assisted to migrate into the district. By the end of 1936, 186 families had received help, 115 of which were from Wales, including the Wilcox family among thirty families from the Pontycymmer Exchange in the Garw Valley. It would be more accurate to describe this as ‘assisted migration’ rather than transference, as most of the work was found by the migrants themselves, with help from friends and relatives already in Cowley, many of them working in the building trades. It was only after settling in Oxford that the migrants found more stable employment in the car factories.

Where the state machinery was used to direct and control the movement of workers via placements notified through the exchanges, the processes involved in resettlement were largely alien to the experience of these individuals so that the end product was frequently accompanied by a sense of atomisation and alienation. In turn, these feelings often led to large-scale re-migration to South Wales; of the ninety thousand men transferred by the Ministry of Labour from the depressed areas between 1930 and the middle of 1937, forty-nine thousand returned home. Despite the after-care provided for juveniles, it was estimated that between October 1934 and September 1937 approximately forty percent of boys and fifty percent of girls transferred by the Ministry returned home. The Ministry classified ‘homesickness’ as the most important reason for this and the social environment was as important in fuelling this as the working conditions. As one commentator put it, parents became convinced that it was better for their children to be half-starved in Wales than hopelessly corrupted in London. 

While official reports attempted to play down the cases of re-migration as hopeless cases of homesickness, unpublished sources show a growing concern among officials with the unsuitable nature of many of the domestic situations into which the juveniles were being placed, particularly in the London area. Wages paid to boys under eighteen were insufficient for them to maintain themselves; they were ill-prepared for the kind of work involved, which was often arduous, involving long hours and little time off, certainly not enough for an occasional weekend at home in Wales. As a consequence, many boys returned home without giving local officials the chance to place them elsewhere.

The Ministry recognised from the early thirties that the success of the scheme in placing a large number of boys in the South East of England would depend on finding them industrial placements. By this time, Welsh girls were also becoming increasingly resistant to being placed in domestic employment. In its Annual Report for 1930, the Oxford Advisory Committee for Juvenile Employment stated that only eight boys and fourteen girls from Wales were placed in employment, compared with forty-nine boys and eighteen girls in the previous year. This was due to fewer suitable vacancies being notified to the exchange. The reasons for this were seen as being very specific:

… An employer who has previously had in his employment Welsh boys or girls who have not proved satisfactory has declined to consider any further Welsh applicants for his vacancies. Of the Welsh boys who have been brought into the area during the past year, six boys and two girls have already returned home.

The young people concerned had been placed in hotels, as domestics in the colleges, or, in the case of many of the girls, in resident domestic situations. In small private houses where only one maid was kept, evidence of the increase in middle-class prosperity, Welsh girls were said not to settle easily. Their sense of isolation intensified and the resulting homesickness led them to return home. By contrast, those girls and boys who were placed in ‘bunches’ in the colleges were far more settled and were also able to return home during the vacations. However, even these young people found the expense of return rail fares a powerful disincentive to returning at the end of the vacations. Thus, by 1931, the experiment in placing juveniles in domestic service in Oxford had largely failed, and employers were showing a distinct preference for local labour.

Far more significant than the involvement of the Ministry of Labour in the reception and settlement aspects of transference was the role played by voluntary agencies. At a national level, organisations such as the YMCA and YWCA were keen to look after the social and moral well-being of the young immigrants. ‘Miss’ Allen, Secretary to the organisation’s Unemployment Committee, was thus able to report in October 1936 that all the organisers were working very closely in cooperation with the Ministry of Labour in the matter of the transference of girls… and were very much alive to the necessity of commending girls so transferred to the YWCA in places to which they went. Two months later, the Ministry informed the National Council of Girls’ Clubs that it was prepared to make a grant available for the establishment or extension of club facilities in certain areas to which juveniles were being transferred. In the following year the NCGC, the Central Council for the welfare of women and girls and the YWCA were involved in a conference on the problem of Transferred Girls and Women.

Concern for the moral as well as the material welfare of transferees is also evident in local sources dating from the late 1920s. These reveal an early provision of support for young transferees to the industrial Midlands which contrasted sharply with the lack of after-care provision in Greater London found in the mid-thirties. In 1935, Captain Ellis of the NCSS was no doubt mindful of this contrast when he arranged for Hilda Jennings to be released from the Brynmawr Settlement, where her survey of the Distressed Area was finished, to conduct a six-week enquiry into the efficacy of the methods of the various Welsh Societies in the Metropolis which catered for the welfare of Welsh migrants. The enquiry was paid for out of ‘private funds’ but was conducted with the fullest cooperation of the Divisional Controller of the Ministry of Labour.

The enquiry found that most of the transferees to Greater London were in the eighteen to thirty group, and were single men and women. It was critical of the London Welsh societies which it claimed were concerned mainly in preserving in the Welsh colonies the Welsh language, culture and traditional interests. As Jennings pointed out, most of the transferees from South Wales knew little or nothing of these. The problem was further compounded by the deliberate policy operated by the Ministry of mixing transferees from different home areas in order to diminish the overpowering “home” affinities and thus increase the chances of assimilation in the new community. Given the evidence identifying the importance of migration networks based on particular coalfield localities to successful settlement in the industrial towns of the Midlands, this policy was undoubtedly counter-productive, and a further example of the way in which the official Transference Scheme worked against the grain of the voluntary migration traditions of Welsh communities. 

The Ministry’s policies exacerbated the sense of isolation and meant that migrants were forced to meet at a central London rendezvous rather than being able to develop a local kinship and friendship network in the suburban neighbourhood of their lodgings and/or workplace. Moreover, the local churches displayed a complete incapacity to provide an alternative focus for social activity except for the minority of migrants who possessed strong religious convictions from their home backgrounds. However, Jennings’ suggestions for a strong central committee to coordinate and develop local district work met with considerable resistance from ‘the Welsh Community’, who resented both her criticisms and her dynamism, by the NCSS which by 1936 was divided on the issue of transference and therefore unwilling to provide the funds for such a project, and by the Ministry, who doubted its practicability. Consequently, the young adult migrant to London, lacking the conditions favourable to self-organisation which existed in smaller industrial centres, was left largely unorganised by the social service movement and its voluntary bodies.

It was the experiences and responses of those scattered throughout Greater London which received most contemporary attention from social investigators such as Hilda Jennings. This research into the new London Welsh, which formed the basis of a radio broadcast by Miles Davies, were focused on forty-five men and women living in different parts of London, working at different trades and occupations and coming from various parts of South Wales, most of whom were young, single people who had been in London between one and five years. A significant proportion had been transferred by the Ministry; others had arrived ‘on chance’; only a few had migrated with the help of friends or relatives already working in London. It is therefore not surprising that the respondents complained of the feeling of being adrift … the feeling of foreignness, of being among strange people. They generally contrasted the ‘bottling up’ of home life and the ‘latchkey’ existence in London with the ‘open door’ of the valleys. The impersonal and business-like visits of the tradesmen in London left the newly-arrived housewife in London with a real sense of isolation and loneliness. Of course, there were many older established districts of London in which more neighbourly contacts were the norm, but few Welsh people could afford accommodation in these districts.

One of the young women interviewed, however, pointed out that friendships in London had to be doubly precious and long-lasting, as against the casual half-hearted friendships of the village. The Welsh societies and chapels were unable to compensate for the loss of companionship; they stood aloof both culturally and geographically from their potential recruits. There was no easily-identifiable Welsh colony for them to serve. The eighteen respondents who were members of Welsh associations had to travel considerable distances to attend, and few migrants could be expected to go to the lengths of one girl who had actually learned Welsh in London in order to worship with Welsh people.

When the spotlight was shifted away from London and the South-East Division of the Ministry of Labour to the industrial Midlands, a more positive picture of the experiences of migration becomes more apparent. Captain Geoffrey Crawshay commented in his survey for his Special Areas Commissioners’ 1937 Report that there were many cases known to him personally where Dai in the Midlands finds a job for Ianto at home. Professor Marquand of Cardiff University also noted that younger men were subject to waves of feeling connected to the receipt of letters from friends who had already left Wales and he concluded that a programme of training and transfer would only prove successful if it were employed through a policy of group transfer.

That individuals should migrate with the help of friends or relatives already established in the new area is, in itself, hardly remarkable. What is significant is the way in which this informal ‘networking’ extended far beyond the ties of kith and kin and became, in itself, almost an institution. Often it was a daughter or son who secured the first job and the strength of familial solidarity would lead, eventually, to reunification in the recipient area. In turn, once a family, especially one of some social prominence, had become established in the new area, a new impetus was given to the migration of additional relatives and friends, and eventually to that of casual acquaintances and even comparative strangers.

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In this way, a ‘snowball’ effect was created whereby large numbers of people migrated from a particular locality in South Wales to a particular place in the Midlands. For instance, one family from Cwmamman were responsible for the removal of a further thirty-six families from the village. By the end of the 1930s, substantial pockets of people from particular coalfield communities were located in particular Midland towns. Workers from the Llynfi, Ogmore and Garw valleys were dominant among the migration streams to Oxford while there appears to have been a preponderance of Rhondda people among the migrants to Coventry, and Birmingham seems to have attracted a good many workers from the Monmouthshire valleys. Although there is some evidence to support the view that workers from other depressed areas were influenced in their choice of destination in a similar fashion, the geographical patterns are not nearly as distinct. Moreover, the Ministry noted that a significantly higher proportion of Welsh people found work for themselves than was the case among migrants from Northern England. Indeed, the Welsh networks were so strong that many of those who accepted help from them were actually employed when they made this decision.

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Besides this independent and collective organisation of familial networks supplying information and support to fellow migrants, the retention of cultural traditions and associations helped to reinforce a collective identity and to establish a sense of stability and respectability in the recipient communities. These associations, or institutions, which the exiles carried with them, were outward expressions of an internal idealised image among the immigrants, an image which came complete with its ‘Welsh mam’ in Miles Davies’ 1938 radio broadcast:

What is there in this Rhondda Valley which is missing from… London? Climb with me for a moment to the top of mountain overlooking Tonypandy … past rows of cottages, with their slate roofs glistening in the sun … across the valley are the long streets of Penygraig, some tilted up the hill, some terracing the mountainside. It is all so near and so clear. You can pick out Dai Jones’ house below. There is the wash that his wife has just put out blowing in the wind; a brave show of colour. You can perhaps see Mrs Jones herself talking to her neighbour over the fence … That is the kind of picture that often comes to the mind of the Rhondda exile.

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Dunraven Street, Tonypandy, circa 1914

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Above: Glamorgan Colliery, Llwynypia, Rhondda, circa 1920

It was precisely this type of imagined scene which helped to provide the invisible binding ties for the Welsh exiles in the Midlands, ties which proved strong enough to hold them together in solidarity and resistance against the tangible tensions which were brought to bear on them in an atmosphere of economic precariousness and social/ cultural prejudice.

The Welsh working-class immigrants in England, men and women, like many other immigrant communities before and following them, found that their attempts to propagate a self-image of industriousness and respectability were in open conflict with a powerful panoply of counter-images and prejudices forged within host societies and reinforced by a variety of social and political commentators. Although long-distance and international migration was a major component of the social and cultural experience of many of the rural and older industrial areas of Britain, it was alien to the experience of most of the ‘new industry towns’ which had obtained their craftsmen in previous generations predominantly from surrounding rural artisans and labourers. The ‘local’ character of the populations of these centres meant that they were essentially conservative in social and cultural, if not in political terms.

The accusation that Welsh immigrants habitually undercut wages was a prevalent one. An American writer recorded that it was repeatedly said of the Welsh that they would work for wages that no Englishmen would dream of accepting. This view was a myth without much grounding in reality. Among the immigrants to London interviewed for the NCSS Report on Migration to London from South Wales in the late 1930s, eighteen young men and women had either left Wales upon leaving school, or held no job between leaving school and moving to London, or were too young to join a union in Wales. Twenty-one men had belonged to trade unions in Wales, eighteen of them to the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF, or The Fed). Only ten of the interviewees, nine men and one girl, had joined unions since arriving in London. Those among the contributors who were active in the trade union movement in London said that they found it difficult to understand why previously loyal SWMF members were slow to join unions in London. They did, however, suggest a number of reasons, including that membership of The Fed had been accepted as a tradition to which they had subscribed without exercising much thought. On finding themselves in London trades, industries and services where no such tradition existed, they did not bother to seek out and join the appropriate union. Some complained that in the course of years of employment in London they had never been asked to join a union.

The age-old stereotype of the Welsh as being dishonest, even to the extent of thieving, was also alive and kicking. When it was revived and reinforced by the agents of authority in society, most notably by magistrates and the press, it was difficult to counteract. In 1932, Merthyr’s Education Committee resolved to send a letter of protest to the Lord Chancellor concerning remarks reported in the press as having been made by a Mr Snell, a magistrate at Old Street Police Court, London, during the hearing of a charge against a young ‘maidservant’ from Troedyrhiw:

Did your friends tell you when you came to London from Wales you could steal from your master, as I find a great many of you do?

The Committee protested that these remarks cast a very serious aspersion upon the integrity of the people of Wales, and in particular upon the inhabitants of the Borough. Of course, not many magistrates were as prejudiced in their attitudes, but cases of theft by Welsh immigrants were given pride of place in reports from the police courts. For example, in 1928, another domestic servant, nineteen years old, from Cwm Felinfach, pleaded guilty to stealing from a bedroom at the house in Oxford where she was employed, the sum of five pounds, six shillings. She was arrested at the GWR station, presumed to be on her way back to South Wales. Her employers asked the bench to be lenient with her as she had not been in trouble before. She was therefore remanded in custody for a week while enquiries were made with a view to helping her. Naturally, such individual cases were a considerable hindrance to those who were attempting to break down this popular prejudice against the Welsh, though they occurred with far less frequency than Mr Snell suggested.

In 1937, the National Council of Social Service made an application to the Special Areas Commissioner for funds to establish a reception service for Welsh immigrants to London. They presented detailed evidence from both London and Slough to show how, among the migrants, a certain amount of hostility had developed between those of Welsh extraction and other migrants. Hilda Jennings, one of the key social service figures in this proposal for a Government-funded initiative, emphasised the degree of prejudice and hostility which  immigrant girls from the depressed areas had to contend with from ‘local’ people as well:

In many districts to which migration takes place there is a growing uneasiness on social grounds. Sometimes, in default of precise knowledge, prejudice, due to the failure or misbehaviour of a few individuals, is allowed to determine the prevalent attitude to newcomers. Generalisations with regard to the ‘roughness’ of girls from Durham or the instability and ‘difficult’ temperaments of the Welsh, make it less easy for even the most promising persons from those areas to take root in new communities. Many of them make good, but others, for lack of better company, gravitate to the less socially desirable groups and reinforce existing anti-social tendencies.

In addition, Welsh women were often stereotyped as being ‘highly sexed’. Many commentators certainly took the view that they were more feminine than their English cousins. On the whole, they were more content than Oxford or Coventry women to accept traditional roles as either maidservants or housewives and mothers. Both oral and documentary sources suggest that very few Welsh women entered insurable employment in Oxford or Coventry before the war, compared with ‘native’ women or immigrant women from Lancashire. If the ‘highly-sexed’ charge related to a stereotype of the Welsh immigrants as having larger families than the natives, then the charge was as fallacious as the stereotype. Research showed that while the fertility of married migrants in Oxford differed little from that of the South Wales population, the fertility of both of these populations was less than that of the Oxford natives.

Given the scope and level of prejudice with which the immigrants had to contend, it would hardly be surprising to find that they also tended to conform to the stereotype of them as ‘clannish foreigners’. However, this was not only a tendency common among Welsh women, whether married or single. In this regard, the dilemma that both men and women migrants found themselves in was clearly articulated in the NCSS report of the late thirties on Migration to London from South Wales:

… instead of being encouraged to use the gifts of sociability and social responsibility which he has brought with him from the small community, he does not seem to find any demand for his services except in gatherings of his own people… The more Welshmen are able to keep together, the happier they will be. But at the same time they are building up a reputation for clannishness which does not help them to find a place in the mixed community in which they live.

There may be a danger that men and women from South Wales coming to London after, perhaps, long years of unemployment, tend to lose their courage. They use the Welsh churches and societies that they find in London as something of a shelter and do not make efforts to integrate themselves into the life of the metropolis. If this is so, then some of the blame must lie with London for presenting to the stranger the face it shows. 

In a 1936 edition of their journal, the ‘Middle Opinion’ group, Political and Economic Planning published statistics showing that immigration into the South East of England was in excess of total emigration from Britain as a whole, claiming that while the national importance of emigration has long been recognised, the practical significance of internal movements has often been overlooked. The pressure which groups like P.E.P. brought to bear led a year later to the appointment of Sir Montague Barlow to head a Royal Commission on the distribution of the population. Although the Commission’s full report was not published until 1940, it began receiving evidence in March 1938. By  then, there was considerable disquiet among the British public about events on the continent, not least in the Spanish Civil War in which bombing by Italian and German planes had led to a mass refugee problem.

On its sixteenth day, the Commision received evidence from a group of councillors, industrialists and academics from South Wales. They pointed out that in 1934, South Wales still possessed a high birth-rate compared with the other regions of Britain, at 16.1 per thousand of its population, compared with a rate of 15.4 in the West Midlands and 13.9 in the South East. However, Professor Marquand of the University College in Cardiff also pointed to the falling fertility rate due to the migration of men and women likely to have families elsewhere. This was borne out by the fact that, in the period 1937-39, there were on average sixty-six births per thousand South-Welsh women aged fifteen to forty-four, a rate less than that produced by women in the West Midlands. Demographic historians have highlighted the role played by the involvement of women in manufacturing industry in the Midlands, the North-west and South-east as an important factor in spreading birth-control techniques; the highest birth rates continued to be recorded in those areas where employment was mostly dominated by males.

Even before the Barlow Commission began to sit, concerns about the increasingly uneven distribution of the population had begun to be heard, especially from those living in London, as the following extract from The Round Table reveals:

London and its satellite towns have already expanded too far and too fast, from the social, health, and ascetic points of view. The heaping up of population in the quarter of these islands nearest to Europe constitutes a grave and growing strategic liability.

Although the increasingly dangerous international situation referred to created nervousness about the excessive concentration of the population in the Midlands and South East, it also created increased demand for labour in the industries which were responsible for rearmament, most of which were located in these areas of the country. It was not until 1939 that the economy of South Wales began to be transformed by rearmament in general and the resultant mushroom growth in women’s industrial employment in particular.

 

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In this context, the work of the Barlow Commission, completed in August 1939, was too late in taking cognisance of the widespread agitation for regional planning in response to the twin concerns about the denuding of the Special Areas and the threat from the continent. Its conclusion served as an indictment of pre-war governments and their piecemeal and paradoxical policies on the planning of population:

It is not in the national interest, economically, socially or strategically, that a quarter of the population… of Great Britain should be concentrated within twenty to thirty miles or so of Central London.

However, this still did not mean an end to the policy of Transference or to the continued voluntary exodus of workers from South Wales, especially since the rearmament boom meant that engineering centres like Luton and Coventry were swallowing up more and more labour by offering ever higher wages in their shadow factories producing aircraft. Welsh Nationalists denounced MPs and civil servants alike as ‘collaborators’ in the ‘murder’ of their own ‘small, defenceless nation’, a theme which was repeated in the Party’s wartime pamphlet, Transference Must Stop. Nevertheless, the Transference Policy had long-since ceased to occupy centre-stage by the time the Nazis occupied the Sudetenland, and there is evidence to suggest that the ‘Blaid’ leadership was itself slow to give priority to the issue, favouring a policy of deindustrialisation and being opposed on pacifist grounds to the location of armament industries in Wales.

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On 3 September 1939 Neville Chamberlain made his famous radio broadcast to tell the British nation that it was at war with Germany. In London, an air-raid siren sounded in earnest for the first time, though it was a false alarm; a Royal Proclamation was issued calling up the Reserves. The lesson of the fascist bombing of Guernica on 26 April 1937 was not entirely ignored by the Chamberlain government, despite their acquiescence. Cities were vulnerable to air bombardment and the civilian population would be a prime target in any Nazi attack. Such an attack would not discriminate in terms of gender or age, so women and children would, for the first time in British history, become the primary targets of the large-scale bombing. By September, a year before the beginning of the blitz on London began, the government had published plans for the evacuation of two million from London and the southern cities, and by 7 September, three and a half million had been moved to safe areas. The social effects on all sections of the community were traumatic, though the greatest hardship fell upon the working classes, of whom a million were still unemployed at the outbreak of the war.

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Billeting arrangements were often discriminatory against both girls and women. Pamela Hutchby, a ten-year-old girl, exhausted and travel-dirty after a slow train journey to Stafford recalled being driven from house to house, the billeting officer asking, do you want an evacuee? The reply came, what is it? A girl? Sorry, we wouldn’t mind a boy, but not a girl. Sarah Blackshaw, a cockney mum with a baby, remembered standing on Ipswich station and being left unchosen from a line of evacuees as farmers took their pick as though selecting cattle, their first choice being for strong lads who would be of most help on the farm. Elsewhere, middle-class families recoiled as billeting officers attempted to place poorly-dressed and underfed kids into their genteel homes, a world of oak biscuit barrels and fretwork-cased radiograms. Happily, there were those who took in and treated the city refugees as their own children and formed deep relationships which survived the war. The picture below shows children from Walthamstow, London, on their way to Blackhorse Road Station for evacuation.

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At 3.50 a.m. on 7 September 1940, the Nazis began their blitz on London, the target being the London docks and the solidly working-class areas around them. In the small terraced houses that had back gardens, the people took to their Anderson shelters, dug into the earth, but for tens of thousands in tenements and houses without gardens there were no deep shelters, only inadequate surface shelters built of brick. Buildings with large cellars opened them to the public and conditions were often appalling as thousand crammed into them night after night. People looked enviously at the London Underground stations, deep, warm and well-lit, but the official policy was against their use as shelters. In Stepney, the people broke down the gates when the stations closed and went down to the platforms. The authorities then relented and opened the underground stations as night shelters. At first, people simply took a few blankets and slept on the platforms like those in the photograph taken in October 1940 at Piccadilly. Seventy-nine stations were used as shelters and at the peak, 177,000 people were sleeping in them each night.

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In 1940, the general willingness of the British people to meet the demands of mobilising an entire economy for war production was a remarkable feature of the nation’s experience of the war.  This economic mobilisation had to be achieved while several million men were in the services. To meet Britain’s labour needs, therefore, over seven million women were drawn into the workforce. Recruitment campaigns were mounted by the government to encourage women to enter the factories, but ultimately compulsion had to be used. This was a controversial step, given existing social values and the fact that women were paid far lower wages than men.  It was made plain that female employment was a wartime expedient only: women were expected to return to domesticity once the war was over. Of course, many didn’t, partly because this profound social change towards a ‘dual role’ for women had already begun five years earlier in many engineering centres like Coventry.

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Nevertheless, the scale of the rearmament and restructuring task is best illustrated by the aircraft industry, in which the workforce increased from about thirty-five thousand in 1935 to nearly two million in 1944, some forty percent of whom were women. It became the largest industry in Britain, employing about ten percent of the total workforce. One typical company, De Havilland, builders of the Mosquito, had to expand rapidly from its Hatfield base into nearby ‘shadow factories’.  Factories in Luton, Coventry and Portsmouth, also built Mosquitoes. It was one of the most successful aircraft of the war, with nearly seven thousand produced and large numbers repaired. Those women who remained as housewives became involved in government initiatives such as the ‘Saucepans into Spitfires’ campaign (see the photo below). In 1940, housewives saved forty shiploads of paper and enough metal to build sixteen thousand tanks.

(to be continued)

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