Emily Gertrude Lea (1902-1976): War, Memory & Life Writing

Being alive for both World Wars, Lea had her fair share of wartime experience. A child during the First World War, and a mother for the second, it is interesting to see Lea’s opinions and attitudes towards war change overtime.

Only in her teens at the time, at first Lea understandably expresses a naive attitude to war. Spending the week away with her family for the annual August bank holiday when war was declared, Lea recalls being excited about this prospect; “I must admit I was very excited over the upheaval it caused our quiet ways and believed all I heard and read about…’gallant Belgium’ and ‘scraps of paper’ quoted in the Kaiser”(11).

In hindsight, Lea became aware of the propaganda efforts that took place, which encouraged the public to support the war and believe it was a good thing;  “ How little we knew that we were in for, the darkened streets, German zeppelins, food rationing and the terrible casualty lists”(11)

Propaganda poster from World War 1
 Poster from World War 1

The excitement of war soon faded for Lea, as rations began and “one by one, the ‘boys of the village’ joined up either voluntarily or later by conscription and several from our street never returned.” (11) As the bleak reality of war set in, Lea recalls “Even the weather seemed against us, the winter colder and longer than usual” (11)

Newspaper reporting signing of Armistice
Newspaper reporting signing of Armistice

In November of 1918 at 11.am the armistice was signed and joyous celebrations erupted around the country with Lea joining in; “everyone went berserk; never have I seen such animation in our quiet streets. A thanksgiving service was arranged that night in Parish Church and every seat was occupied” (11)

However, the joyous mood was short-lived. Contemporary observers noted that Post-war Britain did not seem like a country that had just achieved national triumph. An array of economic, political and social problems prevented a return to peacetime conditions “a very disillusioning period set in” (13) Lea describes.

Post war Britain became more of a democratic society as previously under-represented groups such as women and the working class gained power from the war, women were filling roles previously occupied by men and attitudes towards the working class changed after cross-class experiences in the trenches.

Whilst the working class were now a more organised and powerful political force, it simultaneously began to shrink numerically. In the inter-war period more of the working class were employed in ‘white-collar’ jobs which formerly they would not have been considered for. This was an important step on the road to a ‘modern’ British society.

By the time of World War 2, Lea had turned 37 and now boasted a family of her own with husband Fred and daughter Diana. It is abundantly clear that Lea’s attitudes to war this time round had significantly changed since she was a young girl contrastingly stating; “I suppose some people got quite a lot off on the quiet with their patriarchal efforts, but personally I wasn’t interested, and resented the war, I knew I should never feel like I did in the last war, I was too disillusioned.”(27)

Houses of parliment during the blackout
Houses of Parliament during the blackout

For Lea, World War 2 came with more trials and tribulations than the previous war as stricter gas mask and blackout procedures were produced. As a way to compromise Germans visibility of England, a strict blackout system was put in place. The public were instructed to make sure no light escaped from their homes, Lea recalls “various measure were contrived, smaller watt lamps were used…producing a dismal effect. I cut up a dark bedspread for curtains…Fred made shutters (27). Alongside this, people were required to keep their gas masks on them at all times which Lea quickly tired of, however hearing that a fine of five shillings could be imposed on those who did not Lea didn’t run the risk.

No longer living in Nottingham, Lea was also now troubled by the evacuation process. Most children that lived in inner cities were sent to reside with families in the countryside where it was deemed safer. The first two weeks of war for Lea were spent awaiting evacuees; “By this time most hair-raising tales were being circulated about the children brought here being riddled with hair lice, impetigo and bed wetting…and no clothes worth wearing”(27).

Evacuation poster
Evacuation poster

Much to Lea’s dismay, she soon found the rumours to be true upon the arrival of two girls aged seven and nine arrived on her doorstop. Lea recalls how “The girls were nice children, but painfully poor and their clothes were just other peoples cast offs” (27). Both girls were also riddled with lice allegedly the size of ants. During their stay Lea managed to provide the children with extra clothes making them more presentable and after regular access to food, both girls gained six pound in weight and looked much healthier.

Much like the first World War, the aftermath of World War 2 didn’t spell the end of the end of hard times; “The years following…were a slow painful climb back into peace. In fact things were never the same again”(30). Remaining on rations for a further seven years, it is clear to see why Lea and others alike were more than happy to put both Wars behind them.


First World War aftermath. Available: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/firstworldwar/aftermath/brit_after_war.htm Last accesed January 3rd 2014.

Lea, Emily Gertrude. ‘Reflections In the setting sun…I Remember after fifty years’Burnett Archive of Working Class autobiography, University of Brunel Library, 2-469


  1. Evacuation Poster: http://www.battlefieldhistorian.com/bhc310027_shes_in_the_ranks_too.asp
  2. House of Parliment during blackout: http://theredlist.fr/wiki-2-16-601-790-view-social-documentary-profile-brandt-bill-1.html
  3. Newspaper report on Armistice: http://raycityhistory.wordpress.com/2012/11/
  4. Propaganda Poster: http://historicalphotosdaily.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/ww1-propaganda-poster-funny.html



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