‘Joiners, bricklayers, miners, stockingers – all transformed into soldiers overnight, all under the great delusion that it would be over by Christmas, “Let’s get it over and done with”. – ‘They knew not what they were doing’ – No-body did!’ (47)
In ‘Half a Lifetime In The 20th Century’, Charles Sanderson spends a large portion of his memoir focusing on war and memory. Discussing both World War One and Two in depth, Charles recounts growing up through WWI and his contribution in WWII. Sectioned into a chapter in his memoir as ‘The Melting Pot- End of an age?’ (46), by referring to WWI as the ‘end of an age’, Charles and his feelings about the war are perfectly clear through his careful selection of his chapter title. ‘I was approaching my eight birthday when the 1914 war broke out. World shaking events register indelibly, even in the mind of a child.’ (46). Admitting the outbreak of WWI had permanently remained in his thoughts, Charles gives us a first-hand account of children growing up in Britain during WWI.
Charles also gives an account of what it was like as a child seeing soldiers parade through the town, ‘In areas like ours, the appearance of a body of marching soldiers preceded by a military band, all sometimes in dress uniform, was the cause of great excitement and admiration’ (47). This ‘excitement and admiration’, continues as Charles confesses an injury he got trying to get a better view of the troops passing through the town!
‘I have a permanent reminder of one such occasion in the shape of a scar on my right lower palm, sustained when climbing a fence in order to get a better view of some troops… ‘What a sight! – Cheerful, happy, care-free young men, with their packs on their backs and rifles over their shoulders’ (47).
Although Charles reminisces about young men marching through the town and how they were a sight to the public, appearing to be ‘care-free young men’ in the eyes of a young child, Charles also reflects on the loss and horrors of WWI: ‘Volunteers got thinner and thinner so making it necessary for the government to introduce conscription’ (49). Mentioning conscription adds a harrowing undertone to Charles’ memoir, reminding his readers about the loss of men during WWI. These harrowing reminders in Charles’ memory is reflecting on again, this time through personal family experience.
‘I had three cousins…who were each called up in turn…it nearly broke his mother’s heart…The elder son came back gassed…The second son came back unscathed…but the young boy was killed in France…though she lived to be an old woman, never got over his death. Something went out of her; her heart went dead.’ (49)
Charles uses his memoir to delicately inform the reader of the loss his family faced during the war. His cousins and aunt faced devastating loss in WWI and it is obvious that this part of his family never quite recover. ‘I had yet another aunt with just two boys. The elder one was lost in France, reported missing but she never believed him to be dead. She snatched at anything in after years to keep her hope alive.’ (50). This overwhelming loss in Charles’ family signifies how devasting WWI was to families, not only in towns like Sutton-in-Ashfield, but all over Britain.
Charles also uses his memoir to discuss how women were affected by the war: ‘Women in times of stress, are often more discerning than their men, especially in time of war…knowing they alone now bear the burden of fending for their children’ (48). Although Charles never engages with women’s rights, his acknowledgment of women and their determination to overcome struggle in war simply demonstrates his respect for women, and how he admired them filling the position of men, not only in work but also in the family. This observation of women in war is explored by Gail Braybon, who states: ‘It is therefore important to consider not only women’s experiences and their own feelings about the war, but the perceptions of their observers…These reveal much about general views of women’s capabilities’ (141). These general views Charles has on women and their capability during the war highlights the respect for women Charles had even as a child.
This observation of women is continued as he reflects on the moment of realisation about the brutality of war, ‘Women who had shown a brave face were quietly weeping and the sight of this may have made me realise then, in my child way, that war was no game’ (48). This moment in Charles’ childhood when he realised that ‘war was no game’ is a sad and yet enlightening moment in his memoir, understanding the courage of both men and women, we can only assume Charles’ outlook is changed forever.
‘If these home tragedies made such an impression on the mind of a child, like I would be then, one wonders how grown people who lived long enough to know what bereavement meant, felt about it all…1914/18 was a terrible, terrible war’ (50)
Sanderson, Charles Whiten. ‘Half a Lifetime in the 20th Century’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. University of Brunel Library. Special Collections. 688.
688 SANDERSON, Charles Whiten, ‘Half a Lifetime in the 20th Century: A Book of Memoirs’, TS, pp.115 (c.78,000 words). Extracts published in Mansfield and North Nottinghamshire Chronicle Advertiser (Chad), 13 March – 31 July 1980 (Sutton-in-Ashfield Library). Brunel University Library.
 Braybon, Gail. ‘Women and the War’. The First World War in British History. Ed. Stephan Constantine, Maurice W Kirby and Mary B Rose. London: Hodder Headline PLC, 1995, 141-168.
Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Bech, Bill ‘War Memorial, 1914-1918’. Horsham District Council: Horsham Museum & Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/war-memorial-19141918-77865
‘Britain’s War Workers’ https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/433207/The-heroines-who-fought-on-the-home-front