Harry Alfred West (b.1880): War, Memory & Life-Writing

Although it separated his family and forced him to relocate for an extended period of time, World War One doesn’t play a huge role in Harry West’s biography. He chooses to write about it only briefly, and with no real emotion. He does take the opportunity to mention his family for the first and only time, however even his separation from them is relayed in a matter of fact tone, as he simply states “my wife and daughter Esme removed to a furnished house in Sydenham.”(36) This expression of fact without flowery language is in keeping with the tone used throughout the rest of West’s autobiography, and it is clear that even with issues as harrowing as war he aims to maintain a formal, detached manner in his writing.

When war first broke out West was able to maintain his job, as his employer thought him too valuable to risk losing to the fighting. Despite this, he tried to take a role in supporting his country:

I myself enlisted in the “Derby Scheme”, which required me to take up volunteer service while actual service in the army was postponed for a period on account of my employees appeal that my services with them was a key position. I joined the Bristol University Volunteers and did spells of night guard at the Bristol Aeroplane Company’s works at Filton. (36)

This volunteer work put a strain on West’s already busy schedule, and eventually he could no longer postpone being called up for training: “Military training, night guard duties, business and Sunday School responsibilities was a very trying experience, with colleagues on every hand being called up to army service and generally irreplaceable. At length I was myself called up, further postponement being refused.”(36)

derby scheme
Derby Scheme Recruitment Poster
Source – Wikipedia

Although West was very fortunate in that he was never actually called up to fight, he did have two near misses: “Twice while at the Sydenham depot I was warned, drafted, equipped and trained for service overseas in the active field – with several other officers. On both occasions, however, when the final instructions were received from the War Office, my name was omitted, I never knew why. I never, therefore, saw active field service, although my medical category was always A1.” (36) He also considered himself lucky to have escaped the wrath of the bombs:  “We had serious air raids and heavy casualties at Sydenham but I was fortunate to be spared. I was also very busy as the C.O. of my company was often ill from war wounds, and I had the company on my hands. I was also very busy with Courts of Inquiry, Court Martials etc., and often in charge of a large convey of lorries and troops to other depots.”(36)

Never seeing combat, West had more impact on the war effort after the combat had ended. He tells us ““After the Armistice on 11th November, 1918 – (the eleventh hour of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month) I received a letter from the War Office requesting me to be transferred to a position as Education Officer to a war hospital area, which carried with it promotion to the rank of Captain.”(37) Harry West is unusually lucky in that the war didn’t bring him loss or hardship, merely a change of circumstances, and this may be why he is able to write on it as just another aspect of his incredibly varied life.

 

West, Harry Alfred, ‘Autobiography of Alfred West. Facts and Comments’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:745

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