Alfred Ireson (b. 1856): War and Memory

British troops in silhouette march towards trenches near Ypres at the Western Front during the First World War.
British troops in silhouette march towards trenches near Ypres at the Western Front during the First World War.

Presumably, working class autobiographies that are dated during war periods would more than likely contain a bombardment of images relating to the traumas of war; the images that swallowed whole the many joyous and free experiences of the authors life. The First and Second World Wars are still two of the most harrowing events in British, as well as global history, with the memory of many individual’s experiences of it being somewhat selective. ‘Reminiscences’, as stated previously, sees Alf shy away from the retelling of the darkest moments of his prosperous life, but being alive during The Great War of 1914 to 1918 means that Alf does indeed highlight the atrocities it brought, however brief he details them.

‘Gathering Clouds’ (152) provides the most ominous of subtitles we see Alf pursuing. ‘The crash of war came’ (152) when the brink of his financial woes and anxieties were seemingly, and finally, lifted, in which the ‘weeping among mothers and young wives’ replaced any preparation for contentment. However brief his glimpses are, of the agony shared by families when the call to war came, it is a reminder of how the First World War shattered any form of ordinariness in working class lives. Every year the commemoration of those fallen during Remembrance recognises the most immense form of sacrifice that a human can commit to:

Then as now, the official idiom of Remembrance stressed not so much victory of patriotic triumph as sacrifice”. Dyer, 1994 – The Missing of the Somme.

He specifically recalls his community being ‘troubled with air raids’ whereby ‘the first two Zeppelins came over the West of London’ (153) which caused a terrific explosion and panic amongst everyone. For those of us who have never experiences such a war scene, it is impossible to imagine the fear that accumulates as these German Zeppelin airships, which killed over 500 people during their bombings of London, swarmed in above them.

A Zeppelin: the enormous hydrogen-filled airships invented in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century u used to bomb Britain during the Great War.
A Zeppelin: the enormous hydrogen-filled airships invented in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century used to bomb Britain during The Great War.

‘Being now left with the very old men’ (152) Alf did not answer the call to war, instead, he saw 50 of the Coster young men that were a part of his own-founded ‘Lads’ Club’ leave their families and loved one to protect and fight for their country and then ‘later the call came for older men’. With his sons away in Canada and New Zealand too, his only first-hand experience of the losses of war were from those who surrounded him in his community, rather than internally within his own family. It is uncertain whether any form of guilt came across him as the war ended, a form of survivor’s guilt even; no doubt seeing other families ripped apart by the First World War would have made Alf recognise how lucky he was that his family came to no harm.

As with the majority of ‘Reminscences’ final pages, a chapter entitled ‘Romance and Tragedy’ recalls a heart-breaking story of a Coster family that he worked with during the days of his very own ‘Lad’s Club’. Fred Simpson, ‘A boy of the streets of Notting Dale’ (158), who was married to and deeply in love with a young gipsy girl, volunteered for service when the war came. After being sent to France after only a few weeks of training, he was badly wounded only days after his arrival. As a result, he was sent to a convent in the country, which had been transformed into a hospital ‘full of wounded and dying men’ (158). ‘Good progress’ was being made by him in a letter sent home to his worried young wife, ‘full of hope of an early return’ (158).

Harrowingly however, a few days after the letter was received, ‘the Germans bombed the convent during the night. Everyone was killed in the ward.’ (159).

Indeed, his own experience of war were far from shattering; could this be another occurrence of someone who had lived through the war ‘refusing to consider their experience’? (Read, 1930, n.p.) Whatever the reason, Alf identifies with the losses of his country and sympathises with the tears that were wept.

Works Cited:

Ireson, Alfred. ‘Reminiscences’, TS, pp.175 (c.35,000 words). Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure. Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982), pp.82-8. Brunel University Library.

Dyer, Geoff. The Missing of the Somme. United Kingdom: Hamish Hamilton, 1994.

Napper, Lawrence. The Great War in Popular British Cinema of the 1920s: Before Journey’s End. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015. p.201

Images Cited:

Daily Mail Online. Web. Accessed. 5th January 2016.–reminding-Great-War-atrocities.html

Edible Geography. Web. Accessed. 5th January 2016. Graf Zeppelin, USC Digital Archive, California Historical Society: TICOR/Pierce, CHS-8436.


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