Living through the wars

Daniel Shannon-Hughes recounts personal stories from two world wars

 Civil defence advertisement

A civil defence advertisement in Walthamstow during the Second World War (credit Vestry House Museum/Waltham Forest Council)

The scales of conflict, death and mobilisation of populations in the First and Second World Wars, 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, were unprecedented.

The wars shaped the lives of those who lived through them and shaped the world that followed: The welfare state, the end of empire, and the beginning of the Cold War, were all consequences of the war years.

Their impact was incalculable and yet for people born in post-war Britain it’s almost impossible to imagine what it was like to live through such turbulent times. Fortunately, first-hand accounts from survivors of both world wars do exist and are available in the Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop’s archives at Vestry House Museum.

A common narrative is of popular enthusiasm among the people for the war effort. I focus here on two interviews that demonstrate this enthusiasm but also contain evidence of lesser-voiced resistance.

 

The first recording is with an unidentified member of the South Chingford Co-op Women’s Guild, recorded in 1985. A teenager when the First World War started, in 1916 she was working at the Lebus furniture factory in Ferry Lane: “My friend and I, we were 16, we thought we weren’t doing enough to help in the war. We were very patriotic at that age… so we left and we went to Woolwich Arsenal.”

The interviewee was put to work on the highly-explosive compound Trinitrotoluene (TNT): “We used to have a little bag about as big as your finger. We put them on the machine, turn a handle, and fill it with TNT. It’s like very fine sand and that thing had to be made very hard.”

After a time she transferred to a munitions factory in Waltham Abbey. Production was round the clock: “We worked three shifts, six ’til two, two til’ ten, and ten ’til six, every night except Saturday.”

The second interviewee is Jack Milford, born 1913 in Leyton. A child in the First World War, he says: “My first recollections were of my mother taking me down to the air-raid shelters in the stables under Lea Bridge Road arches.

“My father came home on leave from the trenches, still with Flanders mud on him, and he took us up to Chingford. He laid out on the grass and went to sleep for the whole afternoon while the three kids played.”

 

Just like our munitions worker, when the Second World War started, Jack was eager to help his country: “I said to my father; ‘I think I’ll join up dad’.” Having fought in the previous war, Jack’s father knew what the reality of war would entail.

“He says; ‘You bloody little idiot, you been reading books? You get killed at this game. Don’t you bloody volunteer. They’ll come for you when they want you without you worrying’.”

True enough, in 1940 Jack was called up.

For our munitions worker, only in looking back did she see the darker aspects of her wartime experience. The bags of TNT she made were designed to kill on the battlefield but they also took the lives of fellow workers: “At Waltham Abbey we saw huge craters where there had been explosions.

 

Munitions workers at Woolwich Arsenal

First World War munitions workers at Woolwich Arsenal (credit Vestry House Museum/Waltham Forest Council)

“You think after it’s a bit frightening but not at the time because you were young. We just thought we were helping to win the war.”

After the initial months of mainly popular enthusiasm for the First World War, the horrors of trench warfare meant fewer men were volunteering to fight. Conscription was introduced to maintain the supply of soldiers.

 

Our munitions worker puts the hostility of her male colleagues down to conscription: “Some of the men weren’t very kind. We didn’t realise why they didn’t like us. But the reason was [for] every woman they took on, a man was released for the army.”

The resistance and unwillingness to fight among some soldiers, manifested most obviously in several mass mutinies, is omitted from many First World War narratives. It is even rarer for soldiers’ resistance to be included in narratives of the Second World War.

 

Jack’s memory of embarking shows it was there though: “Midnight we march out of Oxford… they put us on trains and lock all the bloody doors so you can’t get away.

“They put us on the boat, and it immediately goes into the Mersey, a mile out, and anchors. One of the regular soldiers says; ‘Ah well, you can say ta-ta to that for five years’. It’s a bloody five-year station.

“I thought, how can I ever write and tell my missus I’ve gone for five years? We were going to India… That night, two blokes hung themselves and three tried to swim ashore to Liverpool.”

Most stories about soldiers in the Second World War focus on their determination, bravery and sacrifice. However, from Jack’s account we can also see there was an unwillingness to fight and desperation that pushed soldiers to desert or commit suicide. The scale of death gives us some insight as to why.

 

“By the time I got back [to Britain in 1946] we had about two thousand of the original men, out of five thousand. Three thousand of them dead. Horrible, isn’t it?

“And also, uselessly. Absolutely and utterly uselessly. Although we enjoyed it very much… well, you do, in the time.”

These words also sum up the contrasts in experiences of war and histories of war. Every individual has different experiences and, as seen with our munitions worker and Jack, can have conflicting views about their experiences.

People were enthusiastic and did enjoy elements of wartime. There were many acts of kindness and bravery too. It is right this should be recognised. However, they should not obscure the other side of war. The horror, the death, and resistance, have to be included in the narratives.

An awareness of both sides is important because how we feel about these wars can shape our attitudes to contemporary and future conflicts. Only with a fuller picture can we make an informed choice when today’s leaders ask us to go to war.


The Waltham Forest Oral Histories Workshop is a volunteer group which has been recording oral histories with local residents for the past 30 years. For more information on the workshop’s archive, joining the group, or being interviewed:

Email oh@wforalhistory.org.uk

Visit wforalhistory.org.uk

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