“I can understand now how men were brutalised by the idiotic slaughter and years of doing everything by army numbers, cut off from home and civilian life with modest enough ambitions frustrated into impotence. Getting used to a single life again and surviving mostly by luck and by the skin of their teeth…Our father must have found himself a stranger all over again but this time in his own home” (29).
Joe’s father, Irish born Michael Loftus, joined the army in 1914 to fight on behalf of his country in World War One. This has a detrimental effect on Joe’s relationship with him. Leaving home shortly after Joe was born meant that his father was absent for the crucial first four years of his life. As a result, Joe brands his own father “a stranger in the open door way of our front place” (9) when he returns home at the end of the war. Dressed in army uniform, Joe remembers “the huge thick boots, thick with dirt and the tightly putteed legs all baggy khaki-britched and long dusty trench coat hanging open and flaring. The thick shoulderstraps with the brass badged cap tilted back. There’s the crash of the canvas kit bag onto the stoneflagged floor” (9). As Michael familiarises himself with his family, Joe realises the kind of appalling conditions his father has had to endure: “there’s the stale smell of what must have been the trenches in my nostrils from a world far away.” (9). His father’s inability to separate himself from the war expands beyond the lingering odour of the trenches on his uniform. He is unable to overlook his experiences as a soldier and adapt to family life again. (Read also about Joe’s father in ‘Home & Family’.)
During WW1, the Leigh community was gripped by growing anxiety: “I heard grownups talking in low voices about the Zeppelins…But it was all talk wasn’t it?” (10). Unbeknown to them, in April 1918, an air raid attack on the Lancashire region was imminent. Thomas Fegan describes the night a Zeppelin airship delivered its blows: “Abandoning plans to bomb Liverpool, he attacked Wigan after 11.00pm in a raid lasting twelve minutes. Passing over the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, the Zeppelin released a stack of bombs that caused considerable damage around Darlington Street East. One which fell in Harper Street razed several terraced houses, killing two of the occupants…Nine others were injured during the attack” (2013, 40). The total death toll was 14. Joe himself actually saw this aircraft passing over Leigh and heading towards Wigan:
“that night of the full moon in April 1918 when we were all awoken by a loud droning, rattling noise. Huddling up to the bedroom windowsill we peered with eyes full of sleep over the housetops to see what was drumming so loudly on the windows in our street…then we noticed that huge pearly-grey shuttle-shape which was already gliding fast towards the distant haze” (10).
This must have been a terrifying experience, especially for Joe, and many other people in Leigh, who felt so far away from the brutal realities of war. It certainly had an effect on Joe’s mother who after witnessing the ordeal “was kneeling by the side as she prayed for the poor folk in Wigan” (10).
As a boy, Joe begins to feel uncertainty towards the Catholic faith and its teachings. (Read more about this in my post on ‘Habits, Culture & Beliefs’.) One of the many things that makes him sceptical is the facts of WW1: “one by one the hammer blows of reality, everyday reality, questioning and doubt demolished many of the religious concepts I had been taught. The great war slaughter, brutalizing and crippling – sanctified on all sides and its aftermath were not lost on lads like me” (79). Understandably, Joe wondered how could there be a God if he allows horrific events like this to happen. When talking about the war Joe does not adopt an elegiac or ironic discourse, but instead speaks of it in terms of anger and bewilderment. For example, he often uses ‘slaughter’ to describe the war. This noun intensifies the terror and violence that took place and suggests Joe thinks the 11 million military personnel and 7 million civilians who lost their lives were killed senselessly, with little justification.
After seeing first-hand the impact the war had on his father, Joe has a tendency to focus on the effect it had on the Military Front rather than the Homefront. He notes “The horrors of that war were to be felt and relived by ex-service men to the end of their days” (79) but when talking about himself and the Homefront, states “The 1914-1918 war didn’t mean that much to me. I was the youngest of seven and not old enough to know what was happening or to remember all that much” (9), which is surprising as Joe does have quite a few war time recollections throughout his memoir. Florence Anne Cooter (1912-2004), only a child like Joe during WW1, was hit hard by the war, particularity with the struggles of food rationing. She remembers “food was scarce during this time so Florence’s Father would send home parcels filled with violets for his wife and lumps of butter in which Florence and her siblings were instructed to divide and deliver to neighbours with love from their Father” (Rees, n.pag, 2017). Joe would have been twenty-five when the Second World War broke out, so it is likely this war had a more direct impact on his life, but there is no mention of it.
Despite concentrating on what the soldiers went through in the war, Joe never describes his own father as brave or expresses his admiration towards him. This is again in contrast to Florence Anne Cooter whose father also fought in WW1 and her admiration of him is a persistent theme in her memoir.
‘Joe Loftus’ 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): 2:484
Loftus, Joe. ‘Lee Side’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:484.
Fegan, Thomas. The Baby Killers: German Air Raids on Britain in the First World War. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Military, 2013.
Rees, Amy. “Florence Anne Cooter (1912-2004): War and Memory Part One.” www.writinglives.org Web. Accessed 27/04/2017 http://www.writinglives.org/warandmemory/florence-anne-cooter-1912-2004-war-and-memory-part-one
“A WW1 soldier returning home” www.uk.pinterest.com Web. Accessed 27/04/2017 https://uk.pinterest.com/bichonman/world-war-i/
‘WW1 German Zeppelin” www.warfarehistorynetwork.com Web. Accessed 27/04/2017 http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/military-history/german-zeppelins-terrorizing-the-british-and-raf-during-ww1/
“Rationing poster WW1” www.historymad.com Web. Accessed 27/04/2017 http://www.historymad.com/2.LinksPages/Britain1903links.htm