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Response to Review of The Home Front in Britain: Images, Myths and Forgotten Experiences since 1914

The centenary of the First World War and now the 70th anniversary of D-Day have elicited a range of responses from academics, museums, the media, community groups, students and both amateur and local historians. Interactions between these different groups are however few and far between. The Home Front in Britain: Images, Myths and Forgotten Experiences since 1914, was an attempt to work across those divisions, to broaden perceptions of the First and Second World War Home Fronts, and to dislodge, stretch and challenge many of the popular tropes of everyday life in Britain during both conflicts. It is therefore gratifying Peter Grant considers that this edited collection is ‘”doing its bit” to challenge some of the misconceptions we hold about the two home fronts’.

Many of the contributions to this book were originally presented at conferences that the Midlands Region of the Women’s History Network held annually at the National Memorial Arbortum in Staffordshire from 2010–14 which deliberately brought together speakers and participants from within and beyond the academy. We appreciated Palgrave Macmillan acquiescing to our desire to publish this volume in paperback at a price that comparable to other texts on the shelves of non-academic bookshops. This shaped and framed the book immeasurably. The contributors were given a remit which required them to write in a accessible style, in what may seem to be relatively short chapters. We deliberately chose to publish work being undertaken by post-graduate students, independent scholars and writers who had never been published before alongside established and well known academics. The chapters that produced are consequently varied in their focus, use of sources, analytical approaches and appeal to different readers. Interestingly the cross-over aspect of the book has not been picked up by any of the reviews I have read so far but I hope that an exploration of whether and how publications can bridge the gulf between academic and non-academic readers will become a future area of debate.

The portrayal of the Home Front in both conflicts is not the prerogative of the historian, the media or the heritage industries but rather a product of the ebb and flow of private, community, official and unofficial narratives that vie for their place in cultural memories of the conflict. Furthermore, as Peter Grant correctly points out, there is a significant variation in the quality and quantity of academic, and indeed popular, literature on the Home Fronts of the First and Second World Wars. Encouraging an interrogation of the histories and the literature, what is remembered is a pertinent project, for the narratives of the past are used to legitimate Britain’s present, as has occurred in some triumphalist approaches to the First World War Centenary that preceded a general election in which nationalism had a high, perhaps a disturbing high, profile. David Cameron’s initial speech to the press in Downing Street began with a referrence to VE day, his victory linked to a past victory. On becoming the first Conservative Prime Minster with an overall majority in the House of Commons for 17 years, he went on to state that his aim was to make ‘Britain great again’. In so doing he affirmed the oft-repeated suggestion that war and conflict were moments of British greatness; the simplicity of such narratives, however popular, needs challenging, as there are multiple conflicting and complex histories of both conflicts. We hope this text has extended them a little and will stimulate further debate and research.

The desire to ensure that this collection on the Home Front was part of the discussion around the centenary of the First World War introduced a range of time pressures into the production process; any inadvertant mistakes which have slipped into the volume as a result are clearly regretable. Nevertheless Peter Grant’s critique of my fellow-editor’s chapter on war widows seems harsh. Janis Lomas’ research paid particular attention to 300 letters in the War Widows Archive, which she was instrumental in ensuring was preserved at Staffordshire University. The letters describe the difficulties that desperate widows experienced, cataloging their personal circumstances and the challenges they faced in claiming widows’ pensions. These letters are an excellent example of what came to be termed ‘history from below’, taking ordinary people as its subjects. This approach remains necessary as despite the popular interest in the Tommy, ordinary working-class women all too often remain hidden from histories of the First World War.

The agreement by the state to take over responsibility for both separation allowances and war widows’ pensions and set up the Ministry of Pensions in the First World War may well have been as Grant suggests: ‘another step in the creation of the welfare state’ but women did not always experience it in quite this way. This is not surprising, as the ideological shifts identified by historians after events, or even the new priorities or concerns of those in Whitehall, in the Labour Party or within the national leadership of groups like the Charity Organisation Society are not necessarily translated into the everyday practices and varied and contradictory attitudes of those who administer welfare whether working for charities or the state. Support for both soldiers’ legitimate wives and the euphemistically termed ‘unmarried wives’ was not uncontested or necessarily motivated by altruism during this first total war. Indeed in Worcestershire there was a fair degree of suspicion towards the working-class claimants of separation allowances and pensions; rumors circulated that at least one woman had benefited in the South African War by requesting assistance from two different charities for two different husbands. Furthermore members of the current War Widows Association who attended our Women’s History Network Conferences at the National Memorial Arboretum made it clear that concerns over war widows’ conduct, particularly their sexual conduct, continued remained an issue for very many years beyond the First and Second World Wars.

Harry Farr‘s widow is not necessarily a typical example of the attitude and treatment of war widows; however the cases of those men who were ‘shot at dawn’ has received a great deal of publicity and they have a significant place in popular representations of the First World War. This has increased since the construction of a memorial to them at the National Memorial Arboretum in 2001 and the granting of a pardon in 2007; whilst this group of men has been referred to in numerous media representations of the conflict including The Village (BBC 2013–14) and Downton Abbey (ITV 2010–14). Yet the very human cost of this element of war for their wives and families remains hidden, and thus Janis Lomas’ chapter’s discussion of the Harry Farr’s widow portrays a forgotten but culturally significant experience of the First World War Home Front.

The structure of this book, whilst bringing together the scholarship on the First and Second World War Home Fronts, did not however, until the last chapter, facilitate writers being able to make comparisons between the Home Fronts of the two conflicts. Nor did it explore the degree to which voluntary and government processes and mechanisms developed during the First World War, such as food rationing, shaped those utilized in the Second World War. These I hope will become avenues for future research. More work is also needed in two other areas as signaled in Karen Hunt’s chapter: the ways in which the lived experience of the Home Front in both wars was influenced by locale and shifted as the conflicts progressed.

Work patterns, employment opportunities and experiences, the consequences of aerial bombardment and the impact of food shortages and rationing were all shaped in both wars not merely class but by where people lived. In the small Worcestershire market town of Pershore, a fruit growing area where market-gardening, smallholdings and allotments predominated, the sugar shortage was felt acutely in the First World War. Over 60 per cent of the sugar consumed in 1914 was imported from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914, for housewives keen to turn their fruit gluts into jam for the winter months it was an anxious time. Hence in 1916 when parcels of sugar arrived from Canada, they were distributed at the police station by the local sergeant to ensure the danger of civil disturbance was avoided.

Similarly the experience of the Home Front varied enormously throughout Second World War; the phony war, the blitz, rationing, evacuation, the existence of the Home Guard, morale and the interaction with American GI’s were chronologically specific. They were not uniformly present throughout the war – although anyone viewing popular representations of the conflict could be forgiven for thinking they were. The pressures of clothes and furniture rationing became more acute as time went on, for example as things wore out and children grew out of clothes. With the progression of time the endless campaigns and admonishment to make sacrifices to bring victory closer meant that for some women, as J Purcell has pointed out, the idea that ‘every action was crucial to war-effort seeped into everyday life to create a huge sense of scrutinizing every movement and a guilt that was overwhelming’.(1a)

For the historian identifying the uneven and patchy process by which shifts and changes take place, attitudes harden, and policies are brought into practice is complex. In the First World War whilst the idea of a ‘clean break’ and a watershed of attitudes in 1916 may be over-simplified, the significance of 1916 should not be forgotten. This was the year in which conscription came into force, food shortages became more acute and food queues lengthened, the Easter Rising took place in Dublin, and the casualties of war injured, dead or missing just went on rising. This was also the year of the Somme, a battle that has gained an almost mythical status in British cultural memory, which was accelerated by the release of the documentary of The Battle of the Somme in the same year. The huge audiences for this film ‘set box-office records in Great Britain’ (2a) as civilians seized the opportunity to catch a glimpse of their relatives or friends in France and strengthen their sense of connection with them. The film serves also as an important reminder that the imagination, the mind and consciousness of the population on home and fighting fronts was not limited to their geographical location.

Peter Grant is correct in noting that the ‘inter-connection between the idea of the home front and remembrance’ are complex. As the four years of the First World War centenary rumble on this complexity is likely to increase. The domestic medium of television, through which many people now engage with remembrance activities, portrays soldiers as victims of war, It also focuses on their identities as fathers, sons, brothers and partners who belonged at home, although as Joanna Bourke has pointed out, rarely as the ‘soldiers, airmen and sailors who bayoneted, bombed and torpedoed other women’s sons’.(3a) A focus on the Home Front can present a softer, more palatable, nostalgic version of war avoiding such contradictions and horrors. Further debate, discussion and research about the First and Second World War Home Fronts will hopefully challenge this.

Notes

  1. Jennifer Purcell Domestic Soldiers: Six Women’s Lives in the Second World War (London, 2010).Back to (1a)
  2. John Hodgkins ‘Hearts and minds and bodies: reconsidering the cinematic language of The Battle of the Somme’, Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, 2008, 9–19.Back to (2a)
  3. Joanna Bouke <http://www.virago.co.uk/read-introduction-wounding-world-joanna-bourke/> [accessed 20 May 2015].Back to (3a)