Mrs W.E. Palmer (b.1908): War and Memory

The war wended its way to a close, […] and Jimmy climbed the highest tree he could find, to hang a Union Jack (32)

Although Mrs W.E. Palmer’s memoir recollects a period in which the First World War prevailed, it seems to have had few negative implications for her joyful childhood in rural Sussex. Generally perceived as a time of trauma, bloodshed, and devastation, war is rarely discussed in a positive light. Yet, in her typically optimistic tone, Winifred proves that ‘it was a time when the British pulled together’ (O.Rose, 2004, 1). When fondly reminiscing about her schooldays, Winifred reflects on the strong camaraderie among teachers and parents. Surprisingly, she suggests that it was ‘the 14-18 war [that] had something to do with this friendship’ (13), as ‘wars have a way of bringing people together, and this was very much the case in Francesca’s part of the country’ (13).

German Prisoners of War in Britain

For Winifred’s father Will, the war certainly brought people together in an unusual way. ‘During the closing months of the war, the deployment of prisoners became more widespread, helping with the harvest in groups of ten and accommodated in tents or barns on individual farms’ (B.A. Holderness & M. Turner, 1991, 188-89). This became a reality for Will, as he ‘was allocated some German prisoners to help with work on the farm’ (32) during the final year of the war. Winifred admits that ‘this caused a bit of excitement, and the schoolboys were interested, but the prisoners were well behaved and worked well, and even the schoolboys soon lost interest’ (32). As food was in limited supply during the war years, help on the farm and harvesting was much appreciated, and needed.

Wartime propaganda – food rations

Food shortage was a wartime reality, and a topic which dominates Winifred’s discussion of war. Initially, Winifred talks light heartedly of the implications of food rationing, revealing that ‘during the war, when sugar was rationed nearly everyone gave up taking sugar in their tea in order to leave enough for the jam, which was a welcome addition to their bread and margarine’ (18). After all, Winifred jokes, ‘in those days every mother worth her salt was a first class jam maker’ (18). However, the nation was in crisis, so many different attempts were made to aid the struggle of having limited access to food. Wartime propaganda posters were a common sight across Britain, with army recruitment and food rationing being the common themes. ‘The pamphlets, produced by the Department of Agriculture, encouraged among other things, canning, limiting meat intake, and recipes to stretch food resources’ (Ciment, 2007, 424).


The powers that be sent a representative, who was supposed to be a farming expert, to view the farms, and Will was ordered to plough up three of his best fields (34)

However, one effort to stretch food resources, which ‘sounded a wonderful idea in theory’ (33), left Winifred’s father Will, at a devastating loss. Already tenant farmers ‘had a job to make both ends meet’ (33), but to make things worse, ‘during the war, they came up against bureaucracy’ (33). ‘One year the powers that be had the idea that as much land as possible on a farm, must be turned into arable land in order to grow food to feed the population’ (33). Winifred proposes that ‘it may be different now, but then it took seven years to produce good pasture land and several years for arable land to produce a good arable yield. So if a farmer was made to plough up good pasture land, he stood at a great loss’ (34). Sadly, this was the reality for Will as he lost a great deal of money which he was ‘not able to recoup while at Harting Coombe [Farm]’ (34). Thus, it is of little surprise to learn that ‘when the armistice was declared, everyone breathed a sigh of relief’ (32).

Works Cited:

B. A. Holderness & M Turner. Land, Labour and Agriculture, 1700-1920: Essays for Gordon Mingay. London: The Hambledon Press,  1991

Ciment, James. The Home Front Encyclopedia: United States, Britain, and Canada in World Wars I and II, Volume 1. California: ABC-CLIO, 2007

O. Rose, Sonya. Which People’s War?: National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain 1939-1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004

582 PALMER, Mrs W.E., ‘Memories of Long Ago’, TS, pp.34 (c.12,200 words). Brunel University Library.

‘Mrs W.E. Palmer’ in John Burnett, Davis Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vol. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:582


German Prisoners of War in Britain – Accessed (18/04/17)

Wartime propaganda – food rations – Accessed (18/04/17)


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