Edith Annie Williams (b. Nov. 1899): War and Memory

‘It was the time of the amassing of Hitler’s troops on the borders of Austria. This previously happy country was now in a state of great nervousness, as their Chancellor, Dr. Dollfuss had been murdered, & the hunt for his assassin was on.’ (20).

Although they do not play a significant part in Edith’s memoir, her wartime recollections maintain a shadowy presence over her life writing. The outbreak of World War 1 coincides with the beginnings of her adolescent years, and her subsequent entry into working life. ‘I had just six months training when war broke out, & everyone’s life was disrupted that changes had to be made including the dressmaking business’ (8). Though she appears to take this in her stride by moving onto work as a nursery governess, the war essentially ends her career as a dressmaker. Had it not been for the war, perhaps she would not have decided to study in later life?

A helper at Paddington Station in London fixing a label onto a child evacuee 1942. The same station Edith uses to flee from the chaos in London.

The war does appear to strengthen her sense of identity because of its impact on her career as I feel that part of her reason for further study, is her self-doubt in her capability of being governess to the young boy. She writes in a melancholic tone particularly in the section titled ‘young ladies’ maid’. She describes how she would sing ‘classical, as well as the current popular war songs’ (10) with the women at Bockleton Court. She remarks, ‘I missed the balance of the male voices of the tenors and baritones’ (10) referring to the men who were away at war.

Selina Todd describes the life for women post- Great War where the government spent a lot of time, ‘coercing women into domestic service’ [1] but for the second time in her life, her work in domestic service is disrupted by the war. ‘Inevitably, the day came when the music had to stop. War news was bad…My employers were among the sufferers, & I was not surprised when they told me the unpleasant news that they could not afford to keep me.’ (10).

In the section titled ‘Immediate Aftermath of War’ she reflects, ‘The war was now over & the changes wrought were many…The war time boom of coal production was now over, & in villages like ours…the first stages of recession that was to blight our lives for years to come, had been reached’ (11). As is evident throughout her memoir, Edith never loses sight of her hometown of Merthyr Tydfil, and this shapes so much of her life such as her career in the Ministry of Fuel and Power, and her studies at Oxford. The devastating effects of war on this industrial town seem to deeply sadden her.

In 1933, she travels with Charles to Vienna, Austria, for Charles’s work. She remembers this as a time of great unrest after the assassination of Austrian Chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss. ‘Strict security arrangements surrounded all newcomers, & we were escorted to our destinations at the headquarters of the railways’ (20).

Shortly after her visit she remembers, ‘when we had returned home, the motorised columns of stormtroopers invaded Austria, turned the guns on the people in their homes, killing the people, & reducing the workers in flats in which we stayed, to rubble. In my photograph album of the occasion, the pictures of the flats taken before and after the German invasion, tell their own tragic story’ (20). She narrowly misses the German invasion of Austria.

Devastating effects of the Blitz on a London street. Edith flees back to Wales during the Blitz.

Towards the end of the 1930’s Edith and Charles move to London, ‘just as everybody else was moving out’ (22) and she recalls ‘our families feared for our safety’ (22). She seems to have ignored all fears and concerns until, ‘A few weeks later when the blitz in London started it looked as though their fears were justified…When a bomb hit the N.U.R offices it was felt the time had come to run for safety.’ (22). She claims to have risked her own safety so severely because of a prospect of promotion for Charles. At this point, it is clear that she is very conscious of her class if she is willing to put herself in danger for an increase in her husbands wages.

She travels back home amidst the panic and describes scenes of, ‘chaos & devastation…Trains were taking evacuees anywhere they felt they could get away from it all if only to have a night’s sleep’ (22). Around 1941 she moves to Oxford with Charles with the reason being, ‘the German’s would not bomb Oxford for fear of reprisals on the university of Heidelberg. Certainly, we never had a warning of any sort the whole time we were there, & to all outward appearances everything went on much as usual’ (23).

It is difficult to place Edith alongside many other female author’s such as Ruth Cox whose husband served in the Great War, and whose son fought in the Second World War. She was fortunate enough to have not lost any loved ones unlike so many other women at that time.

Bibliography

Index entry in Burnett et al The Autobiography of the British Working Class: 832 WILLIAMS, Edith. A, ‘Untitled.’ TS, pp. 39 + 3pp. chapter summary (c. 11,700 words). Brunel University Library.

[1] Todd, Selina. The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010. London: John Murray, 2014. p38

Barton, Aaron. ‘Ruth Cox (1890): War and Memory’. Writinglives.org. April 22nd 2018. Web. Accessed 24th April 2018.

www.britannica.com

Image references

Featured Image – Dugmore, Arthur Radclyffe. ‘Troops Going over the Top, First World War (Battle of the Somme) 1916. York Museums Trust. Found at artuk.org

Image of a helper at Paddington Station. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-two/6163772/World-War-2-More-evacuations-possible.html found at Telegraph.co.uk Getty Images

Image of bomb ruins in London http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11175676 found at bbc.co.uk Getty Images

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