Harry Dorrell (B.1903): War and Memory

‘Body of Able Seaman Alfred Edwin Dorrell recovered.’

Alfie’s details as displayed on a war memorial in Woodgrange Park Cemetery.  

Memory in general is selective and therefore our memoirs are likely to only include what the author sees as important or what they want people to know. Memory can also be shaped and influenced by cultural references, such as the way memories of the war may be affected by propaganda at the time and traditions of commemoration.

How the war is remembered is also based on the individual’s personal experience of it. In Harry’s case ‘the war became very real in (his) family life’ (27) with all of his brothers being called up and then with the death of his brother Alfie. The war ended ‘with the armistice signed on (Harry’s) birthday’ (32) and the family was excited for Arthur and Alfie to return home. However, ‘it was not quite like that’ (32). A few weeks later on the 30th December, Harry came home to the news that ‘Alfie’s been killed’ (32). The death of Alfie was likely to have affected the family’s view on the war, although Alfie’s death was an accident, caused by him slipping ‘whilst transferring to another boat’ (33) wearing heavy sea boots, rather than in action. One of Alfie’s friends gave the impression his death was avoidable, saying that ‘no one had gone in to his rescue as they should’ (33). This detail goes against the ideas of camaraderie that is shown to the public through commemoration and is something that was likely to shade the family’s opinion of The Navy. We see the anger surrounding Alfie’s death when his father sees that the coffin is ‘draped in a Union Jack’ (33) and says ‘Who the devil told them to put that thing on the coffin’ (33). His anger is understandable. Not only has he lost his son, but the flag over his coffin represents the very people who failed to save him. Despite this, the family has great pride in Alfie’s Navy career, hanging a photograph of him in uniform on the wall. In this way Alfie’s presence stayed with the family from then on, and Harry says ‘I found a photograph of mother and father in that room and reflected in the mirror over the mantelpiece is that framed picture of my brother.’ (34)

Harry does not write much about how Alfie’s death or the war in general affects him apart from his utter shock when he says ‘I should never see my Alfie again’ (32). This links to the idea that ‘all who had lived through the war years, had for more than a decade refused to consider their experience’ (Samuel Hynes). They carried on as normal, without acknowledging the trauma they had been through, likely because they had to. It was part of their life and they had no choice but to accept that. The fact that Harry did not seem to get chance to grieve for Alfie properly could be something that affected his mental health later in his life, if we consider Freud’s theory that repressed feelings are the cause of depression.

Another thing we see in Harry’s memoir is how people had very strong feelings about other people’s choices regarding the war. The public were affected by propaganda and were therefore conditioned to be supportive of the war, and anyone who was not, was seen as a traitor. We can see this when Charlie ‘refused military service on conscientious grounds’ (27) and one neighbour was outraged, one day screaming to the children playing with Harry, ‘You stop playing with that nasty little German boy!’ (28). The children however, paid her no notice, which is one thing that shows the difference in how the children viewed the war and how adults did.

Dorrell, Harry, ‘Falling Cadence: An autobiography of failure’, TS, pp.161 (c.97,000 words). Fragment published in the POEU Journal, Aug 1983. BruneI University Library. AWC- 2:0231

Hynes, Samuel. A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture. London: Bodley Head, 1990.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.