11th November 2021
Today marks Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of hostilities of the First World War in 1918 and which is also marked as a day of Remembrance of all those who fell in the line of duty, both then and in every conflict since that has cost British (and other) lives and which continue to do so.
Throughout the country this week in every city, town and village, there will likely be a Remembrance service and countless wreaths of poppies laid at cenotaphs and war memorials. I make it a habit at the very least to watch the televised Remembrance Day Service from Whitehall in London, and every time it really chokes me up. I can guarantee that when that bugle plays the ‘Last Post’ I will be in bits, tears running down my face. It happens every year.
In fact, I’ll admit to you, I can’t hear that music without getting a lump in my throat, even when it occurs in a modern TV show, maybe like NCIS or similar (my guilty pleasure). Each time, it feels like I’m experiencing a personal loss. When I was a young girl in the Brownies at the Emmanuel Church, on Abbey Road in Barrow, we used to end each weekly meeting singing the words to that tune which went:
Day is done. Gone the sun
From the sea, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well; safely rest.
God is nigh.
See, I’m filling up even as I write the words. Sadly, the Emmanuel Church no longer exists; it’s now a set of residential apartments for older people. I’m happy to say I still have a link to it, because that’s where my brother lives now. But I digress: I’m a sucker for all those videos on Facebook and YouTube that show military men and women reuniting with their families (and even their dogs) after a long tour of duty on some distant battlefield. I cry buckets. And even worse, when not that long ago they kept showing on the news, the flag-draped coffins being brought back to RAF Brize-Norton; not such happy homecomings for those poor wretches or their families.
My close family was lucky, we didn’t lose our menfolk in battle in either of the World Wars because the main industry in Barrow was shipbuilding; most of the workers were prohibited from fighting because of their ‘reserved occupations’. In fact, my great Uncle Charlie is the only one I know of who went to the battlefront at the age of 18 in 1917, and thank God he came back unharmed; physically at least. There are, thank God, none of my family names inscribed on the Cenotaph at the top of the steps in Barrow Park.
My dad’s brother-in-law, Wilf Carter, fought in WWII and I know he wound up in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp where he saw and experienced terrible tortures. My mother told us a few stories (one of which still scares the pants of me, more than fifty years later), but I didn’t know him very well, and we were always told never to mention it in his presence, so how much it truly affected him I can only imagine. I know that I remember him as a very jolly bloke, always smiling and laughing. How on earth did he do that?
I’m telling you nothing new when I say that the wars were fought at home too. Bombings, rationing, blackouts; all the hardships and sacrifices our families went through – they deserve our thoughts and thanks too for ‘keeping the home fires burning’ as the saying goes.
While I’ve been researching for my books, I’ve discovered so much that I didn’t previously know about. I never knew before that Barrow had been one of the major development sites for building Airships. There had been an enormous hangar on Cavendish Dock where they were built. Also the Munitionettes, the girls who worked punishingly log hours in the ammunition factories, who risked their health and their lives, filling shells with toxic chemicals and explosives. These were our grandmothers. They never spoke about it, or complained; they did their duty then afterwards were sacked when the men came back from fighting. Since I found out about these things, I’ve discovered there is a huge amount of information out there – just Google – you’ll be amazed!
We, their grandchildren, and our subsequent generations, have no clue about how they coped. I found a list detailing the weekly rations per person and I was shocked. I could easily consume most of that amount in a day!
“Allowances fluctuated throughout the [second] war, but on average one adult’s weekly ration was 113g /4oz bacon and ham (about 4 thin slices), one shilling and ten pence worth of meat (about 227g/8oz minced beef), 57g/2oz butter, 57g/2oz cheese, 113g/4oz margarine, 113g/4oz cooking fat, 3 pints of milk, 227g/8oz sugar, 57g/2oz tea, and 1 egg.
Other foods such as canned meat, fish, rice, condensed milk, breakfast cereals, biscuits and vegetables were available but in limited quantities on a points system.
Fresh vegetables and fruit were not rationed but supplies were limited. Some types of imported fruit all but disappeared. Lemons and bananas became unobtainable for most of the war; oranges continued to be sold but greengrocers customarily reserved them for children and pregnant women, who could prove their status by producing their distinctive ration books.
Many people grew their own vegetables, greatly encouraged by the highly successful ‘digging for victory’ motivational campaign. Most controversial was bread; it was not rationed until after the war ended, but the “national loaf” of wholemeal bread replaced the ordinary white variety, to the distaste of most housewives who found it mushy, grey, and easy to blame for digestion problems.
In May 1942, an order was passed that meals served in hotels and restaurants must not cost over 5 shillings per customer, must not be of more than three courses, and at most only one course could contain meat, fish, or poultry. This was partly in response to increasing public concerns that “luxury” off-ration foodstuffs were being unfairly obtained by those who could afford to dine regularly in restaurants.
After the war had finished, the pain continued. On 27 May 1945, just three weeks after Victory in Europe Day, rations were actually reduced, bacon from 4oz to 3oz and cooking fat from 2oz to just one ounce.” (www.rarehistoricalphotos.com)
I’ve used my Nana (Annie Dickens nee Turner) as the basis for the character ‘Grace’ in my books; she was born in 1900 and died in 1969. I had thought she must have had a very ‘normal’ life as was considered appropriate for her generation, i.e., her future comprised marriage and children and I doubt she would have had any aspirations of a career outside the domestic sphere. She lived through both World Wars and until recently I had no idea that she had worked in Vickers during the first War, aged just 16. I was only 10 when she died, but I don’t think she’d even spoken to her own daughters about the experience, it certainly hasn’t passed into family folklore. I don’t know what it was she did in the Shipyard, but whatever it was, even if it was sweeping floors, she has my utmost admiration. I wish I could talk to her about it now.
I wonder sometimes what my Nana would make of the world today. The kitchen scene in 1949 that I describe in the opening paragraphs of ‘Grace: Duty and Responsibility’ is pretty much the same as my earliest memories around 1963; they still only had a pantry and no fridge, so the milk was kept in a bucket of cold water under the sink. When I use my microwave oven, I think ‘if Nana could see this, she would think it was some sort of sorcery’. Not for her the labour-saving devices of today. In place of my automatic washer/dryer and vacuum cleaner she had a washtub and mangle and a washing line in the back garden, and a broom, mop and bucket and a carpet beater for the rugs and floors. No fridge or freezer; shopping was a daily chore.
Charlie Dickens, my Grandad didn’t go off to fight in either war. He was too young for the first one and too old for the second. In 1939 he was 38 years old and married with two young children. In any case, he went to work in Vickers’ Shipyard as an electrician, so was in a reserved occupation. His sister, my Auntie Flossie, was a tiny little lady who prior to the second War had been a laundress and also looked after her parents (my maternal great-grandparents), with whom she and her husband Uncle Billy lived. While the War was on, Uncle Billy also worked as an electrician, with Grandad, whilst Auntie Flossie, small as she was, drove the big Shipyard cranes. I didn’t find out about that either, until the vicar mentioned it at her funeral in 1995. Another lost opportunity to find out about her life that I missed. No excuses, I was 37 when she died and had plenty of chances to talk to her – but people never offered up their memories or experiences voluntarily. I suppose it was a case of ‘it’s all in the past, we got through it, let’s just get on with our lives’.
They were, each and every one of them, heroes. No point in complaining; everyone’s in the same boat; just get on with it and we’ll all pull through. The old ‘Blitz Spirit’ indeed – ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ as the old posters proclaimed.
We, the generations that follow them, wouldn’t be able to cope with that nowadays. I certainly don’t know what real hardship is like on a personal level. I know that I’m exceedingly lucky that there’s always been enough food on the table, a roof under which to shelter. I know that should I find myself in need, there’s a welfare state that I can turn to for assistance (as bad as the system is, it’s still there).
I roll my eyes, as most of my generation do, at the complaints of the ‘entitled’ young who think they’re suffering if their Wi-Fi isn’t working or they can’t afford the latest Nike trainers or iPhone. Now that I’m ‘elderly’ I look back through rose tinted glasses at my own youth and bemoan that ‘kids these days don’t know they’re born.’ I’m sure every generation says the same thing about the next.
But I’m every bit as much as them; ‘soft’ compared to the grit and courage of our forefathers (and mothers) who sacrificed so much in the name of Freedom.
We must NEVER forget.