RM Downer lived through two World Wars in her lifetime. The First World War began when she was 30, and Second did not end until she was over 60. Despite this being a significant portion of her life, RM Downer spends little time reminiscing about the war years. Michael Roper observes in ‘Re-remembering the Soldier Hero’ that it is common to see these memories presented with ‘composure’, in an understated way, ‘in order to create a past which can be lived with ‘in relative psychic comfort’ (Roper, p183). In mis-remembering or minimising the significance of her war experiences, RM Downer was potentially shielding herself from a traumatic part of her past.
RM Downer devotes just three paragraphs of her memoir to her memories of the First World War and two of these focus on post-war life. It is clear that it is not something that she wanted to dwell on. It also suggests that she did not see the War as something that shaped her life. RM Downer begins by saying that, when the War came, ‘lots of social activities were over, but I was always busy with more ordinary dressmaking’ (p20). It appears that her anxieties were largely financial, and that she was worried about the impact of the War on her livelihood.
RM Downer does not describe a significant change in her everyday life during the First World War. However, she does mention rationing, and a supper of ‘only sausages’ (p20). She also says that her family ‘had to have the 9th Hants soldiers billeted with us for a while’ (p20). This refers to the 1/9th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, a Cyclist Battalion that were stationed in Southampton in 1914 (The Long, Long Trail). RM Downer does not seem to have seen this as an intrusion, or to have been bothered by a military presence in her life. In fact, she refers to the soldiers as ‘very nice boys’ (p20).
RM Downer does not mention losing anyone close to her during the War. However, she writes about one writes about visiting memorials in London after the War.
I shall never forget my first view of the Cenotaph and standing with emotion with my husband and son with their hats off, also at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey (p21)
Some of her memories about life after the War are happier. For example, she writes that ‘The end of the war brought my sister home for a holiday – a great pleasure to us’ (p21). She also remembers Victory Day celebrations. These brought her more work, as she was asked to make dresses for local celebrations.
RM Downer’s experiences during the Second World War appeared to have a greater effect on her. Due to the threat of air raids, her mother-in-law came to live with RM Downer’s family, because ‘she could not be left alone if the raids came’ (p26). RM Downer mentions the air raids several times, saying that ‘The years slipped by with the air-raids very near us’ (p26). The word ‘slipped’ is interesting because it almost implies a carefree attitude, but also shows the raids as a constant part of life. She says that she ‘spent many times in the shelter in our road’ (p26) but lived in a safer area than her son, who ‘was living near the docks which were constantly being bombed and they were often without electricity and bread’ (p26). RM Downer minimises the danger of her life at this time, narrating it in a way that seems unconcerned. For example, she writes, ‘We also had a Morrison table shelter in our front room. I made good use of this when I was cutting out my work and found it most useful’ (p26). This makes the bombing seem almost trivial, and shifts the priority from the War to work, and practical, everyday life. This reinforces Ropers ideas of ‘composure’ and a stoic narrative style.
Again, RM Downer describes a client’s loss during the War, recalling the death of Mrs. X.’s son, who ‘had been killed by shrapnel while on the bridge of his ship’ (p26). She had previously written about their sons playing together as children, and when looking back on his death, she writes, ‘I had always felt very proud of him as I had had a lot to do with him as a little boy’ (p26). However, RM Downer quickly moved forwards onto happier things. She ends her account of the Second World War by saying, ‘towards the end of the War my little granddaughter was born’ (p27). This is the last time war is mentioned in the memoir and the narrative moves on to focus on her family and their growth. Rather than dwell on the conflicts she lived through, RM Downer chooses to remember birth and life.
Downer, Mrs R., ‘A Bygone Age’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, West Sussex Record Office, 1:211, available at http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9516
‘Mrs R Downer’ 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): 1:211
The Long, Long Trail: The British Army in the Great War of 1914-1918, Hampshire Regiment. http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/regiments-and-corps/the-british-infantry-regiments-of-1914-1918/hampshire-regiment/
Roper, Michael. ‘Re-remembering the Soldier Hero: The Psychic and Social Construction of Memory in Personal Narratives of the Great War’. History Workshop Journal. 50.3 (2000) pp181-204
Featured image: Bomb damage in Portsmouth, roughly 15 miles from RM Downer’s home. https://www.anglotopia.net/british-history/great-events-in-british-history-hitlers-blitzes-on-britain-bombed-but-not-bowed/
First World War government leaflet on breaches of rationing, 1918. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%27Breaches_of_the_Rationing_Order%27_poster.jpg
Troops of the 1/9th Battalion, Hampshire Regiment leaving Vladivostok for Omsk, December 1918. Imperial War Museum image Q58344. http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/regiments-and-corps/the-british-infantry-regiments-of-1914-1918/hampshire-regiment/
The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey, London. http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people/unknown-warrior
Photograph of a Morrison shelter. Imperial War Museum image D 2053.