The two World Wars have undoubtedly had a huge impact on history. I myself have studied the effects of both wars throughout my education, and the impact it had on the nation is common knowledge. Something that is less explored however, is the impact it had on the individual. It is normal to think of the bigger picture, but Joe Ayre’s story walks us through the experience of one man. A child during the First World War, and a struggling family man during the Second, Joe shows no sign of being disillusioned by patriotic spirit as he recounts two wars he wanted no part in.
History tells us that during the war years ‘the best-selling Christmas toy for British children was a miniature tank’ (Badsey and Taylor, 2000, 41). This paints a picture of country thoroughly behind the war, a generation of children inspired and ready to step up should they be needed in the future. Even soldiers on the front line were inclined to look on ‘lighter side’ (Harwood, 30) of war, according to the memoirs Cecil George Harwood. For Joe Ayre, there was no lighter side. Reflecting on his childhood during the First World War, Joe even as a child questioned the morality of his family being forced to ‘fight for a country in which they had only known poverty and degradation’ (3). Joe was showing maturity beyond his years, but Joe’s family found themselves caught up in national pride. After he and two of his sons were called up to serve in the army Joe’s father would ‘go to the pub with them as proud as could be’ (7). This optimism never rubbed off on Joe.
Eventually, the pride associated with fighting in the war came to an end for Joe’s family. In its place came tragedy. A telegraph boy riding his bike through the streets of Liverpool should have been a normal sight, but Joe’s description is haunting when the horrific reality is revealed. Joe remembers witnessing the telegraph boy ride onto his street, aware this meant he ‘was about to deliver one of those black bordered envelopes that meant another soldier or sailor had been killed’ (9). The tension of waiting to see who this letter was for was broken as the telegraph revealed Joe’s ‘brother Tom was killed in the Battle of the Somme and my father was wounded’ (3). Joe recalls how his ‘mother collapsed and it was a very sad time for the whole family’ (9). A war being fought hundreds of miles away, and over political disagreements Joe could not yet understand, had still found its way to Joe’s door.
Although the First World War would end, normality would not ensue for the Ayre family. As well as losing his brother, Joe learnt he had also ‘lost two Uncle’s’ (10). Struggling to deal with the bereavement, Joe’s mother turned to drink. Amongst other things, Joe credits this as being a contributing factor to her early death. Loss was becoming all too common to Joe, all by the age of eight. Knowing this, it is unsurprising to hear Joe’s sorrowful account of the days following the end of the war. Rather than get caught up in the moment, or look back over the event through rose-tinted glasses, Joe recognises that for himself, and ‘for a lot of families it was sad, they had lost their menfolk and there wasn’t much to celebrate’ (11).
The fallout from the First World War would follow Joe for years to come. One cannot help but wonder, that had Joe’s mother not had to deal with the heartache of losing a son, she may not have turned to alcohol. In turn this may have greatly prolonged her life meaning Joe’s father would have never met Joe’s despised stepmother. Without her manipulative nature Joe may have never run away from home and ended up as a migrant in Canada. Finally, had Joe not gone to Canada, he likely would have not ended up penniless and homeless wandering the streets. Of course this is all speculation, but if it is something that we contemplate, it must be assumed that Joe did too.
Ultimately, Joe would recover from the devastating effects the First World War had on his life. He married his wife Dorothy and the two had a child together. As was so often for Joe however, the good times were few and far between. News of the Second World War broke, and the harsh reality set in. The manual labour Joe had spent his entire life perfecting suddenly put him in an unfamiliar position. Now working as welder, something fundamental to the British war effort, Joe remembers how ‘it was strange after the years I had spent without a job suddenly I became essential’ (142). For a time Joe was indispensable on the Home Front, though sadly that time would eventually end.
Joe was eventually issued an ultimatum. He could join the Merchant Navy, or he would ‘be prosecuted and would probably go to jail’ (142). Unsurprisingly, after losing so much of his family to war Joe admits he ‘had no desire to go to sea’ (142). For Joe however, and many others, their mind had been made up for them. Joe departed for war ‘knowing that Dorothy would be having our second child in about three months and wondering when I would see them again’ (144). Of course seeing them again was not a guarantee. The aerial bombing threat had revolutionised war, and the historian Eric Hopkins notes that during the first three years of the Second World War ‘more women and children were killed than soldiers’ (13). Joe was leaving for a war he wanted no part in, unaware of what he would return to.
As has been a common theme throughout my research about Joe, his experience in both wars was unfair. They both resulted in great loss, once for a child, and once for a man who had just found happiness in his always unstable life. Luckily, Joe made it through both of these wars, and would return to Dorothy and his family. A happy ending should not prevent us from learning from Joe’s damning war memories. In war there is so much to lose, and for the everyman walking the streets, so little to gain.
2:29 AYRE, Joe, ‘The Socialist’, MS, pp.178 (c.43,250 words). Brunel University Library.
Hopkins, E. ‘British Children in Wartime’. In John Bourne (ed.) The Great World War 1914-1945. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001. Pg 13-28.
Badsey, Stephen, and Taylor, Phillip. ‘The Experience of Manipulation: Propaganda in Press and Radio’. In John Bourne (ed.) The Great World War 1914-1945. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001. Pg 41-57.
Harwood, Cecil. ‘Down Memory Lane.’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. University of Brunel Library. Special Collections. 1:309. http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10964
Smith, Lucy. Cecil George Harwood (1894 – 1983): War and Memory I. 22nd April 2018. Writing Lives. Web Accessed 26th April 2018.
Toy Tank – https://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/objects-and-photos/art-and-culture/toys-and-models/tank-toy/
Merchant Navy Advert – http://www.ww2ships.com/documents/doc0002-ship_types.shtml