Steve Humphries & Richard Van Emden
Those of us living in the Antipodes are remembering the fallen of WW1 this weekend. Tomorrow is Anzac Day when the events of the conflict at Gallipolli are once again re-examined --- the mistakes are chewed over, valour applauded and the horror of the dreadful carnage grieved for.
There will be services and the laying on of wreaths; for most communities have a memorial to their dead, be it simple, or grander --- like Blenheim's clocktower. Services occur from dawn, (as in Picton), to those later in the morning. Representatives of the services and youth organisations attend, as do some of the general public --- and of course the Veterans, proudly, if arthritically, march there. Ranks from the older conflicts are thinning rapidly, as time takes its toll.
Always the Last Post is played. And is there anyone amongst us who doesn't find tears springing to their eyes, and feel desolation and an enormous sense of loss on hearing it?
Appropriately, I have just finished reading a very absorbing book. I will not say that I couldn't put it down, as I found that I needed to take it in small doses. So it was an accompaniment to my meals!
It is, "All Quiet on the Home Front" --- An oral History of Life in Britain during the First World War, by Richard van Emde and Steve Humphries.
Their book draws upon the personal recollections of a hundred of the oldest men and women from around the country. Some were very old --- one who was 108 was mentioned!
These oral memories were combined with other original sources such as newspaper reports, letters, diaries and some official papers.
This book doesn't describe the battles at the front, trench warfare, hand to hand fighting or the introduction of the dreaded tanks that rolled remorselessly over the wounded of both sides as they pressed forward. It is about its effect on the people of Britain.
Because affect them it did, whether through food shortages which amounted to near starvation for the poorer classes; families torn apart; insufficient income when the breadwinner was serving his country; and terror in some areas a they were bombed by Zeppelins or bombarded from the sea; a beloved father or brother changed beyond recognition --- either in body or mind. There was also the constant dread of telegrams; and the verdict "missing believed killed," when there could be no proper closure. So great was the death toll that many communities were irreversibly affected --- their history changed forever.
It was amazing that the government, ostrich-like, did not introduce a fair rationing system until very late in the war. Large cities like Birmingham worked out one of their own much earlier. The class divisions being still strong, ---- the "haves" fared so much better than the "have nots". Revolution was rearing its head abroad, and political turmoil was starting to seethe under the surface in Britain.
The populace was stirred up in a wave of extreme patriotism. National fervour reached its height with some females handing out white feathers with abandon, to those they thought should have enlisted. Rioting destroyed the premises of many "aliens", long settled and regarding themselves as British. Reactions seemed to smack of hysteria --- including some to various enemy actions.
Shortages of food? I have mentioned at an earlier time my mother's experiences in queuing for butter. Enlistment? My maternal grandfather wasn't called up until the final months of the war, as he was in his late 30s and was a skilled tradesman. His wife worked in a munitions factory, and at night, needing to supplement her income, she ruined her eyesight by sewing shirts by hand in the candlelight. Sixpence per shirt!
So this book reinforced much that was familiar to me, from being passed down in the family. I can't help making comparisons.
A good thing or not? As a child growing up in WW2 I am amazed at the difference between the climates of WW1 and WW2. I have to be grateful for my parents who made us feel secure through the terrible Coventry bombings, to government rationing which made for a fairer distribution and for the calmer approach of determination and endurance in the population in general. Britain was not prepared, but it had learnt some lessons from the earlier conflict.
I do recommend this book for anyone who has an interest in the past. It provokes much thought --- which is no bad thing!
ISBN 0-7505-2149-X Published by Headline Publishing, 2003