Margaret Watson b.1907: War and Memory

Margaret Watson’s memoir spans the duration of two world wars. Born in 1907, when the first world war broke out in 1914, Margaret was only seven years old. As a child during this war, Margaret’s recollection of the period mainly revolves around her father. When the second world war breaks out, Margaret is married with children of her own. I found it interesting reading how her experiences of war differ from when she is a child, to when she is an adult.

Margaret’s earliest memory of war is explored at the beginning of her memoir, where she recounts “War had been declared, my father a reserve, was called up, we were left to the tender mercies of Lizzie.” (p.5) Margaret’s father was a reserve in the army, and like most men during this time, were called up to fight. This meant that Margaret and her brother Chick were left to live alone with their abusive stepmother Lizzie. Because of this, World War I was a difficult time for Margaret; the whole of the United Kingdom faced great anxiety at the outbreak of war and the potential loss of loved ones, and on top of this Margaret faced neglect and abusive when her father left. As well as this, Margaret had to leave behind the innocence of her childhood, and begin to try and earn money to support her little brother; Lizzie was a drunkard who often left the children unfed and fending for themselves.

Interestingly, the neglect Margaret and Chick endured at the hands of Lizzie did not go unnoticed, and she recalls how her father “had deserted to come to us, as someone had written informing him as to our neglect.” (p.9) Margaret and her brother were ecstatic to see their father, as the war led to huge uncertainty at the wellbeing of loved ones who were fighting. Margaret lost her mother at the young age of five, and so concerns about the death of another parent will have been at the forefront of her mind during such frightening times. “How happy we were to see him that night.” (p.9) Unfortunately, the enthusiasm was short lived, as deserting was a crime. Margaret recalls how “We were not long in bed when the Military Police came and took my father away.” (p.10), separating them once more.

The second world war brought similar upset to Margaret; even though she was now in adulthood, Margaret remembers the hardship of being separated from her husband, a situation which had striking similarities to that of what she faced as a child during the first war. “My husband was on the R.A.F reserve list, one of the first to go.” (p.21) Similar to her father many years ago, her husband was on the reserves list, and therefore was called up immediately once the war was declared. As well as this initial upsetting separation, Margaret faced further turmoil when her children were evacuated. “war was on the verge of being declared. All children being evacuated if their parents desired do.” (p.21) Although distressed at the thought of seeing her children leave her during such anxious times, Margaret put their safety first, and they left with Granny. “off went Granny and the two children, labels on their lapels, I was sad to see them go, gas masks around their necks” (p.21). It is interesting to read Margaret’s memories of saying goodbye to her children as an adult, compared to the beginning of her memoir when she is saying goodbye to her father; a role reversal.

Margaret comments on how the second world war caused her substantial fear, which was echoed around the whole country. Air raids from German bombers were a constant threat, and the danger to civilian life was always there. “Terrifying nights we four had out and in to the air raid shelter in the back garden, to sit huddled there awaiting the all clear siren.” (p.22) Although accompanied by friends and neighbours during many air raids, Margaret was living alone, which was certain to be a terrifying time for her.

Women took on ‘men’s work’ during the war, such as drivers, like Margaret.

As a keen labourer, however, Margaret used the war to her advantage when it came to the world of work. Margaret had spent most of her life in relatively low-paying employment; for most women during these times, employment in factories and domestic work was common. However, the war meant that a huge majority of men left their work posts to fight for their country, and women were called upon to fill their positions. Margaret thrived during these times, and she recalls having her head turned by an advertisement saying, “Women Required to Train as Heavy Vehicle Drivers, No Experience Required, Training given free” (p.25). Being a natural good worker, Margaret was successful in her application for the job, and embarked on her new career in the transport sector. Margaret enjoyed her new role so much that after the war ended, she expressed disdain at the thought of returning to her old life, writing “gown sales jobs were definitely out for me” (p.25).

An example of the kind of poster Margaret saw.

Like many women during the time, Margaret was not ready to give up her new job and return to ‘woman’s work’, and this era was an important time for feminism. Women had new found confidence and were proven to be more than capable in doing jobs that until then, they had been told they were incapable of.

Overall, Margaret’s memoir shows the common anxieties many women faced during the two World Wars. As a child, she remembers the fear of her father leaving during the first world war and having to live with her horrible stepmother. Most significantly, the second world war shows the reader that these fears do not go away in adulthood, and she recalls her distress at seeing her husband leave for the war. But most importantly, the war gave Margaret and many other women the confidence to leave their unsatisfying jobs and fill the positions previously occupied by men, proving to themselves and others that these jobs were not ‘man’s work’, but ‘women’s work’ too.

Bibliography

Abrams, L (2010) A History of Everyday Life in Twentieth Century Scotland, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh

Zweiniger-Bargielowska, I (2014) Women in Twentieth Century Britain, Routledge

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