Like many of the working-class writers featured on the Writing Lives website, Thomas MacLauchlan lived through the many wars that Britain fought in over the last century. In fact, War was a constant theme that ran throughout the many stages of his life and had a profound effect on his life as well as on his wife and children’s lives. His autobiography vividly documents his experience and memories of war time, as if it were yesterday.
Thomas’s earliest memory of wartime Britain was throughout the duration of the second Boar War, lasting from 1899-1902. He writes “I can vividly recollect the Boar War because we school boys went to the Local Institute to read the daily telegrams, telling us how the war was progressing, about the capture of Lady Smith and the relief of Maffekin. That was a war we did not win. After it was over, the schoolmaster staged a torchlight procession for the only soldier in the village who had fought in the war. He headed the procession riding on his horse and the boys and girls sang “Goodbye Dolly Grey”, a favourite song at the time.” (99). Although only 11 years old at the time the Boar War began, its impression on Thomas ran deep, as it had with many young boys at the time and influenced his decision to attempt join the Army at the commencement of the First World War in 1914.
By the time Thomas came to joining up, the war had already commenced.
At 25 years old, he had his first examination and was marked a B2, which at the time, meant that he was not fit for active service. However, he was able stand on the service on the lines of communication in France as well as at the garrisons in the tropics. Thus, he was posted to the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, in which he travelled to Seaton Carew, Southern Ireland and then to Bare Island on the South Coast.
In his autobiography, Thomas doesn’t express much enthusiasm when writing of his time in the army. His experience as soldier is an interesting one and different from the atypical review of many soldiers lives who spent time on the frontline. He writes “I don’t know whether I made a good soldier or not. I did not relish the life as a soldier, but in the army, you had to accept things the way things for what they were.” (12) In fact, throughout his entire biography, he does not spend much time illustrating and describing the experiences he went through whilst serving in the army and the effects serving in the army may have had on his life. Maybe this was due to many factors, including the fact that he did not spend time on the frontline so did not experience the true horror of war the way many men at the time did. He does, however, express how he often found himself and the other men doing things for no particular reason in the army. “There were a few things that happened that I could not find a reason for… The population was very small and what we were supposed to guard I have no idea. We spent our time drilling and doing other soldiers duties.” (11)
Despite this, his time in the Army was not without mishaps and incidents. At the time Thomas was stationed at Bare Island, there was a food shortage sweeping over Ireland and English newspaper headlines reported the deteriorating situation. Thomas writes of a protest that he and his fellow officers led, complaining about the poor quality of the food. “One morning, we all turned out for Parade. When the first order was given no man moved. Again the order was given and no man moved. The officer in charge was dumbfounded and called his sergeants together. They were sent back to their companies and selected certain men to find out the cause of the trouble. Our company sergeant selected my friend and I. We had to go the commander officer and tell him that the dinner that day had not been fit to eat…Not long after we heard that the kitchen staff had been cleaned out.”
Thomas’s war-time work was not limited to the First World War. At the commencement of the Second World War, Thomas was appointed head of the ARP committee in which he served for the duration of the war. There were many occasions that he aided the citizens of Seaham and no doubt saved lives. However, he did have some close shaves of his own. At one point, Thomas’s house was destroyed by an overhead bomb, that could’ve very nearly killed him and his family were it not for a strange sense of intuition on his sons behalf. “Doris was told to go to the shelter and Polly and Bob would stay under the stairs…however Bobs said he simply did not feel safe that day…taking the bread from the oven the three made their way to the shelter, minutes after reaching it a bomb fell and the crater was found in the vicinity of where the stairs would’ve been.” (47) Although shocking to the modern reader, it was simply life for those who lived through the war. As Thomas poignantly writes “It was a war that will always be remembered by the people that endured those years.” (44)
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363
Mike Savage, Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican)
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47-70
McLaughlin, Thomas, The Life of an Ordinary Man, 1979, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1.475