At the commencement of the First World War, Frank and his family were living in the village of Withyham. Frank admits that there is little he ‘can recall of the first months of the 1914-18 war except the shock of hearing of the loss of a local inhabitant and men coming on home leave in their uniforms’ (12). Despite being close to the capital of the country, Frank did not associate the sight of airships with fear. Frank writes that ‘on more than one occasion I remember looking from our bedroom window at the great airships and zeppelins passing silently in the night but I do not recollect any thought of fear possibly because they did not discharge their loads of destruction in the country villages but passed on there way over to London and other cities’ (12-13).
Upon moving to Berwick in 1916, due to his father receiving a promotion and this is when the realities of the war began to dawn on Frank. Frank writes that ‘it soon became apparent after our move that things were becoming difficult owing to the dragging of the First World War’ (13). Frank does refer to the issue that the home front faced due to much of the work force going to fight on the front line. Frank writes that ‘labour was also becoming a serious problem and my mother joined the office staff at this time to assist my father in running the ticket office and other commercial duties’ (13). Following his sister graduating from school she also joined her mother working in the office and work at the station almost became a family affair. Frank does show respect to women who worked and supported the war effort. Frank notes that although ‘many local farmers were forced to employ girls, the “land army” … more than played their part in the final result achieved during those four terrible years’ (15). Although Frank does respect those who filled in when labour was low it was tinged with sadness as those young men who left to fight on the front line ‘never returned home, leaving a gap and a sadness in these small country districts that could never be forgotten’ (15).
Prior to the commencement of the Second World War, Frank refers to the peace pact the Neville Chamberlain signed with Hitler in September 1938. Frank was sceptical about this treaty and admits that ‘despite the general optimism of the press and wireless, at the same time there prevailed an undercurrent of uneasiness and uncertainty due mainly to the frantic efforts of those responsible, in bringing our defences and the country in general, to a state of preparedness’ (64). The reality of the situation struck ‘on the 1st September 1939, [when] Germany invaded Poland and the evacuation of mothers and children from London commenced. A black out after dark was also enforced’ (68). Frank refers to September 3rd, 1939 a date his generation would never forget, as ‘Mr Chamberlain speaking over the wireless at 11:15am, declared that we were now at a state of war with Germany, to preserve, he said, the liberty of our people and those of other European nations’ (68). Frank writes that he was very impressed by Winston Churchill, who he referred to as a great statesman, throughout this period but most notably during a speech he gave over the wireless on Sunday 1st October. ‘In September 1939 men aged between eighteen and forty-one had become liable for conscription under the National Service Act. Those who were not awarded an officer’s commission received a low rate of pay – less than most manual workers’ earnings’ (Todd, 122). Frank fell into this bracket and although he does not explicitly state that he did not want to fight the war he did imply that he would prefer to contribute to the war effort by staying on the home front. This Frank did in the form of ‘the Local Defence Volunteers [who] had already been formed and after our daily work we were receiving instructions in the use of firearms, taking our turn with a “night out” every week’ (72).
Frank expresses the delight felt by the country as a whole by the ‘heartening news from the Italian front where on 27th April, the German commander surrendered and Mussolini was captured by our forces and the Newspaper headlines on the 2nd May, “Hitler Dead”. What great news for all those who had fought and suffered these past years for freedom’ (99). Frank also discusses the preparations that were being made for V.E. Day, which was confirmed to be on Tuesday 8th May. Frank writes that although many were out celebrating, this was not the case for railwaymen as ‘it was business as usual’ (99). Despite having to work Frank and his colleagues did not complain and Frank found a way to be part of the celebrations as he ‘found time to give a hand with a bonfire that [his] sons decided on in the garden and by 10pm the sky was crimson whichever direction [they] looked with the glow of hundreds of fires such as [theirs]’ (99).
‘Frank Prevett’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:638.
Prevett, Frank. ‘Memoirs of a Railwayman’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection
Todd, Selina. The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010. John Murray: UK, 2014.
Zeppelin – Telegraph.co.uk
Soldiers from the Railway – GettyImages
V.E. Celebrations – SecondbySecond.co.uk