Charlie Hegarty welcomes a new book showing the sacrifices of women in the Second World War Domestic Soldiers BY JENNIFER PURCELL CONSTABLE, £12.99
For those, like me, who were born after the last war, reading books like this are the nearest thing to actually living through those six years endured by our parents’ generation.
Subtitled “Six Women’s Lives in the Second World War”, it sees the conflict through the eyes of ordinary women who chose to confide their day-to-day thoughts and experiences to the Mass Observation Unit. Begun as a way of giving ordinary people a “voice to describe the war in their own words”, this Unit has subsequently proved a rich resource for research into the “People’s War”.
Irene Grant was the oldest, born in 1885 and a keen socialist. Married and living in Newcastle with two daughters (one with severe epilepsy), life was a never-ending struggle against poverty. She welcomed the food rationing – without it her family would have gone hungry – and welcomed the welfare state inaugurated by Attlee’s government after the war.
Nella Last, born in 1889 and living in Barrow-inFurness with her husband and two sons, joined the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) and found an outlet for her considerable domestic skills, as well as an escape from a difficult marriage. Seeing a poster with the words, “Your courage, your cheerfulness, your endurance will bring us victory” she was galvanised into becoming “a soldier too”. The war was her finest hour; after it, the excitement and the camaraderie of the WVS subsided, along with her new-found self-confidence.
Alice Bridges, born in 1900, married and living in Birmingham with her husband and daughter, also discovered a more vital life during those years.
Although faithful to a difficult and demanding spouse, she enjoyed the freedom and the male friendships the war offered her. She threw off her pre war depression and taped a sign on her front window: “There is no depression in this house and we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat. They do not exist.” Natalie Tanner, born in 1902 and living in Bradford, was a Cambridge graduate with a prosperous husband. He spent some time in a psychiatric hospital but this did not stop her having a brief fling with an unattached Army officer.
Throughout the war she managed to see at least two films a week as well as making regular trips to the theatre. She enjoyed writing down her thoughts for the Unit so much that she kept it up until 1968.
Edie Rutherford, originally from South Africa, lived with her husband (a semi-invalid from the First War) in Sheffield. Because of his poor health they decided not to have children. Anxious to be part of the war effort she refused to buy food on the thriving black market and was assiduous in keeping her diary for Mass Observation which thanked her for her “piquant observations”.
Helen Mitchell, a qualified drama and elocution teacher, seems the most discontented of these women. Unhappily married but financially dependent on her husband who had bought a large house in Kent which proved impossible to heat or keep clean, she volunteered sporadically for fire-watching duties and sewing for the Red Cross.
She wrote: “Unless I can be useful, I have no right to exist”but never found a satisfactory way of surmounting her personal difficulties.
The book provides an interesting glimpse into life on the home front during those years, where women constantly juggled on limited budgets, with sporadic hot water, burst pipes, erratic public transport, leaking Anderson shelters in the garden, clearing up after bomb damage and making meals out of the limited rations available.
Interspersed with their personal observations are the women’s responses to larger events such as the evacuation from Dunkirk, the bombing of Coventry or the news of Hiroshima.
Other facts provided by the author tell their own tale: for instance, divorce petitions went up from 10,000 in 1938, to 25,000 in 1945 and then to 47,000 in 1946. The social ramifications brought about by the war were immense; behind the determined cheerfulness of these accounts hovers the larger tragedy of death and destruction.