War takes a prominent place in Samuel Mountford’s memoir, although not from a first-hand perspective. He is not involved with the battle and infantry side of war, but we see a rare account of the effect of war on an average, working-class, suburban husband and father. Whilst the portrayal of war can somewhat be desensitised in terms of combat due to the mass coverage by media, the realism of hearing about air raids and the threat of death from a civilian who should be physically outside of the threat is effectively frightening. After all, the Second World War was the first instance of civilians being targeted as much, or even more so than the allied forces, which makes the war appear more dangerous to those of us that have fortunately never had to deal with the prospect of having to be drafted into the armed forces to fight. Mountford’s memory of the war is clearly prominent when he introduces the moment he remembers the war beginning:
“I remember the first day of September 1939 very well. Dora went out to get some
work, as things were looking very grim. But she did not get very far. You see, the Germans had gone into Poland, and when that happened peace on earth was no more” (17).
Despite the traumatic events that Mountford has to endure as the war progresses, he keeps a stable tone whilst also affording the topic the importance and drama that it deserves with ‘peace on earth was no more’. He highlights brilliantly how that act on that certain day was the turning point of war, however he also shows that the immediate effect at home was not as dramatic as things would soon become: “She shouted up the stairs, ‘Have you heard the news? The Germans have gone into Poland.’ ‘How can I hear the news?’ I replied, ‘Stuck up here’” (17). Mountford quite possibly encapsulates the reality of the British working-class here, as this is exactly how I can imagine a working-class, suburban man responding to such news at the time, unknowing of the seriousness of the events.
Mountford always appears to describe the war without any stress, and what trauma his family does endure he simply moves forward as one unit, whilst many people coped with the stresses of war with smoking and alcohol. This is what Mark Jackson says in his book ‘Stress in Post-War Britain’:
“According to many post-war stress theorists, smoking and alcohol offered some relief from stress and had often been used effectively by soldiers and civilians to cope with the stress of the war” (9).
Mountford shows throughout his memoir how he did not indulge in pub culture, or even smoking whilst being affected by poverty and the war. Most men of his age were widely known at the time to typically smoke and drink to deal with stress, whether that be the war or poverty, however Mountford’s stress is always overcome with the motivation to do well for his family.
During 1939, Mountford was taken ill with a form of rheumatism and lost the use of his arms and legs, resulting in him being confined to his bed and not being able to work. He was still bed-ridden when he heard news of the war breaking out, and he talks about how his neighbours helped his family tremendously while he was still recovering by erecting air raid shelters. Returning to the subject of memory, Mountford highlights again the vivid nature of the beginnings of war:
“Mr. N. Chamberlain did in fact broadcast to the people on the Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m. that a state of war did exist between Germany and the British Empire. That was September 3rd, a bright and sunny day, but hectic in many ways” (18).
Mountford’s account sounds as though this was the turning point for British civilians, when the realisation had kicked in that they were truly in a state of war, and no longer safe. This in itself I’m sure would be traumatic, and Mountford’s specific recollection of the date and time, and even the weather outside, is testimony to the harrowing effect of the war announcement and how it was a harbinger of things to come.
Mountford, Samuel, ‘A Memoir’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:244.
Jackson, M. Stress in Post-War Britain. London: Routledge, 2015.