Joe Ayre (b. 1910): War, Memory & Life Writing

Although it was called ‘the war to end all wars’, we know now that this slogan was just another con-game that the Capitalists of Great Britain played with the working class as the pawns.”(4)

Wartime recollections play a big part in Joe Ayre’s memoir, particularly in the opening chapter. In his autobiography he reflects on how a traumatic and life-changing event in history has affected the lives of thousands of people. World War One was not something which had a beginning, middle and an end, lasting four years. Instead, he explores how the damages of a collapsed society, as a result of the war, were still being repaired many years later.

britain needs you in the war
Propaganda posters inspired many young men to fight for their country

When the First World War broke out in 1914, unlike his two older brother’s, Tom and Oliver, Joe was not old enough to fight for Britain. Many believed that the war would be over by the Christmas of 1914 which in turn inspired many young men to show their patriotism. Joe in his memoir explains how this was not what happened in reality as pain and grief were emotions which proved to be almost impossible to recover from.

Pride and passion were just two of the emotions which many men entered the war with. Referring to his two older brothers, Joe says how when they were on leave, his father would take them to the pub “as proud as could be.”(7) Fighting in the war became second nature to Joe’s father and his two older brothers. It was their duty. Although it was a threatening position of which to be a part of, the determination and the sacrifices of “the working class of the British Isles”(4) is something which Joe Ayre praises in his writing.

Joe felt that life in the Home Front was just as mentally scarring as life on the Front. Fear was everywhere. “In the working class districts of Liverpool during those war years if you seen a Telegraph boy on his bicycle in your street it usually meant that he was delivering one of those black bordered envelopes that meant another soldier or sailor has been killed.”(9) This was frightening for the wives and the families of those who were fighting in the war. Each day went by, wondering whether their loved ones would return from the war.

telegram of death
Joe Ayre’s family received a telegram of death to tell them that their loving brother and son Tom had been killed in action

Emotion was something which Joe was afraid to show as a child. However, in his memoir he stresses how upsetting it was saying goodbye to his two brothers and his father when they were forced back in action after their leave.

Liverpool Lime Street Station does not hold any happy or nostalgic memories for Joe. “When they had to return to their unit, we would go to Lime St Station to see them off on the train and we would wonder if we would ever see them again.”(10) However, at such a young age with a restricted education, Joe was thoroughly aware of the risks that were taking place during the war. Seeing their mother’s grief during the war was enough for the working class children to understand how serious this was. Joe sums up the reality of the First World War. “I would hold back the tears, you had to keep a ‘stiff upper lip’, it wouldn’t do to let people see you cry.”(10) A strong and positive response to the war was what allowed Joe and many other worrying families at the Home Front to cope with these pressures.

liverpool limestreet station
Liverpool Lime Street Station is not a place of happy memories for Joe

Unfortunately, this optimism was short lived and his life was affected forever.” After the Battle of the Somme we received one of those dreaded telegrams informing us that my brother Tom had been killed in action.”(9) Hearing of his brother’s death completely destroyed his family. “My mother collapsed and it was a very sad time for the whole family, my Father and my brother Oliver was still at the front.”(9)

women and rations
Many women were left alone with their children, rationing their food for the survival of their family.

Joe Ayre shows a combination of tones when talking about the war. Desperation is just one reason why the working class of Britain suffered tremendously during the war. His mother would “deny herself sufficient food in order to feed her brood of kids.”(3) His admiration towards his mother’s efforts is something which he is not afraid to show in his memoir. The unpleasant thought of having twelve children in the space of fifteen years would raise the eyebrows of almost everybody living in the 21st Century.

Joe Ayre’s mother was forced to single handedly bring up a family who were living on rations. It was only when his father was home on leave, that “there was no waiting in line.”(20) Joe shows how that fighting in the war was perceived with a sense of pride. Talking of his father and his two eldest brothers who were at the Front, he says “when they walked in to a shop they got 3 times the rations we were allowed.”(10)

The effects of the war brought with it many long term consequences for not only Joe’s family, but for many grieving families when the end of the war was declared in 1918. Joe lost his mother as “she was unable to recover from the shock of her son Tom’s death”(9) so devastatingly she turned heavily to drink. His mother’s death was just the beginning of the breakdown of his family.

With the employability figures on the decline once the war was over, his father struggled to maintain a stable job. This meant that his family’s sufferings were made worse as not only were they devastated from the loss of their dear mother and brother but their own lives at this point were under threat too.

Joe Ayre is a figure whose own sufferings do not fail to make him stronger. His optimistic attitude during the War years helped to shape him in to a writer with determination and appreciation in his future life. It is this admired attitude which helps Joe to achieve an independent life in Canada which at one point would have been seen as impossible.


John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds), The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989) 2:029 

Joe Ayre ‘The Socialist’, MS, pp.178 (c.43,250 words), Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, no. 29, Brunel University Library.

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