“Rationing was drastic. We used to get bread, cheese and margarine official vouchers.” (p.10)
Compared to other authors in this collection, Fred’s position is unique, because he not only experienced both world wars, but also had vivid memories of what life was like during these torturous times.
In 1914, when World War One broke out Fred was just seven years of age; his memories from this time centre around the hardship he and his family endured. Like most men from this era, Fred’s stepfather was “called to serve in the Army” (p. 9) and was later stationed in Palestine. This resulted in Fred’s mother having sole responsibility for the care of her children. When air raid warnings signalled a possible attack, Fred and his family took shelter in the cellar of the Finsbury Arms, located on Bridewell Lane. Fred recalls how the “street and house lights had to be put out” (p. 10) in order to make the ground undetectable. This must have been a particularly traumatic time for Fred, especially since during one air raid, “a bomb was dropped on Mill Road killing a family named Silvesters” (p.10). World War One “intruded” on people’s childhoods “in a manner that led them to see that generational identity is defined by the historical events of one’s epoch”. Therefore, the purpose of autobiographical writing is to “control how one’s generation is remembered, despite not being in control of historical events” (Bolton, 2004, p.157). To provide further insight into life at this time, Fred comments on how little resources people had during the war: “rationing was drastic. We used to get bread, cheese and margarine official vouchers” (p.10). After WW1 ended, Britain experienced mass unemployment with unemployed men looking to the ‘dole’ for support along with a reliance on unemployment schemes funded by local authorities and government grants (Marjorie Levine-Clark, 2010, p.239). Fred notes, “the unemployed had a club …they were so poor they had to see Mr Mobbs, the relieving officer, to get a 10 shilling food voucher” (p.40).
By 1939, “the rumbles of the Second War were beginning to be heard,” and “those people in reserve were being called up together with the Territorial Army and Home Guard” (p.15). However, when the Second World War commenced, Fred’s employment at the Sugar Factory meant he was “excused from call-up”, as it was a reserved occupation. Despite this, Fred had a desire to help his country: “I wanted to join the Royal Air Force so I volunteered for service and said I would like to join the motor transport section” (p.15). His wish was granted when he was eventually called to service on 1st January 1939, despite his wife’s reluctance for him to “leave her and the children” (p.15). This was not unusual for the time as the separation of families, along with the uncertainty of when they would be reunited, was particularly traumatic for many people.
Fred’s role meant that he was, at first, sent to Padgate Recruitment Centre, before being stationed in Arbroath, Scotland. Whilst there, Fred notes how the commanding officers demanded respect. He recalls how servicemen with less experience, and a lower military ranking, were referred to as “rookies or sprogs” (p.15) and how his commanding officer, who owned the “NAAFI situated in Pin Mill”, expected the men “to salute his car at all times him being in it or not” (p.15). This comical imagery of Fred being forced to salute an empty car reveals the power dynamic between servicemen and their commanding officers.
Later, Fred was stationed in Honington where he worked as an ambulance driver. Honington is only 9 miles from Bury, meaning Fred could make frequent visits to his family. Fred excelled in this role, as he was a local man with good knowledge of the surrounding area, which was especially useful, as “the headlights on vehicles had to be blacked out.” This would have posed a “real problem for anyone not knowing the district especially as there were no streetlights or home lights” (p. 19). Whilst working in the ambulance service, Fred witnessed the brutality that so often accompanies warfare. He painfully recounts attending several plane crashes and seeing the devastation caused describing them as “not very good sights with bodies shot up or burned” (p.19). When later stationed in Chedburgh, a town within the vicinity of Bury, Fred notes how “Butterfly bombs” were dropped, and how the “Doodle-bugs” targeted Bury. These were “pilotless flying bombs” which “dropped to the ground and exploded” after the engine had ceased (p.23). His description creates a scene of total carnage and provides a valuable insight in to what daily life would have been like for the locals. Fred uses his memoir to provide future generations with some understanding of the horrors face by his generation, however, the first-hand experience of war, including witnessing “omnipresent death, mutilation, horrible loss of friends and comrades” cannot be matched with “verbal, aural, or visual representation-most of all by those who have not lived through it” (Smith, 2001, p.248).
When reflecting on life during the war, Fred compares the benefits afforded to American soldiers to their British counterparts. He recounts how “the American servicemen were treated much better than our servicemen; their pay was much better, they could have all the cigarettes they wanted, and tobacco” (p. 23). In addition to this, when international servicemen came to Britain, relationships between them and British women were often formed. Fred notes the Americans “could easily win over our girls”. However, after marrying and relocating to the USA, lots of women wanted to return home “because it was not at all like Dallas or Disney World” (p.21) in the way they had imagined it to be.
Fred’s account of war provides a valuable insight into the conditions his generation faced, whilst also highlighting how the experiences they had, and the decisions they made, affected their lives in the years, which followed.
Baxter, Fred, ‘Cemetery Side of 83 years; the life story of a Bury St. Edmunds man’, Booklet. 43pp. 1993, Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Brunel University Library.
Bolton, Jonathan. ‘Mid-Term Autobiography and the Second World War.’ Journal of Modern Literature 30, no. 1 (Fall 2006): 155-172.
Smith, Leonard V. ‘Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory: Twenty-five Years Later. History and Theory. 40 (May 2001): 241-260.
Marjorie Levine-Clark (2010) The Politics of Preference, Cultural and Social History, 7:2, 233-252.
Image 1- Fire damage caused to a row of shops in the Buttermarket. Retrieved from: http://www.stedmundsburychronicle.co.uk/galleryww1/galleryww1page_04a.htm
Image 2- Reduction of Lights Warning during WW1. Retrieved from: http://www.stedmundsburychronicle.co.uk/galleryww1/galleryww1page_04b.htm
Image 3- Poster about Butterfly Bomb. Retrieved from: https://www.wickfordhistory.org.uk/content/topics/times-of-war/north_benfleet_at_war
Image 4- British women with US troop during WW2. Retrieved from: https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/life/601603/WW2-soldiers-friends-British-American