Wilfred Middlebrook (b.1899): War and Memory

‘We did not know it then, but these carefree days were heading for a close’ (p.104).

Compared to the majority of other authors in the Burnett Archive Collection, Wilfred Middlebrook experienced both WWI and WWII.

In 1914, the Great War began and Wilfred was just 14 years old. His father, Rufus, did not like the thought of shooting anyone, so instead ‘took lessons from the fellow who looked after the horses at our local brewery, and eventually joined the Royal Veterinary Corp’ (p.104)–later, known as the A.V.C. During the early wartime years, Wilfred recalls how work was slack and he spent a large quantity of his time wandering around the countryside with his pals. They were all weavers, Wilfred notes, and their weekly wage was ‘eleven shillings, with pocket money of a penny in the shilling’ (p.104) but in 1915, work seemed to buck up slightly and some weeks, they earned ‘over a pound wage…with two shillings spending money’ (p.105). Despite the war, Wilfred states both him and his friends continued to dress smartly on Sundays, with ‘knickerbocker suits… and bowler hats or ‘billycocks’ in the winter. A straw hat was the fashionable hat in the Summer’ (p.105). He claims he seemed to be living a ‘full and busy life’; music lessons had ended with the outbreak of war, but ‘evening classes and choir practises accounted for at least four evenings every week’ and there remained to be very little sign of the war in Nelson and Barrowford (p.105).

Post WWI: Wilfred and his family

Before the end of 1915, Wilfred’s father was invalided home from the Gallipoli Peninsula, after a spell in a ‘Maltese hospital’, and taken to a private nursing home in the north of Scotland. After Rufus fully recovered, he was posted to the A.V.C barracks–after being determined as unfit for service abroad, again– and was finally gifted his ‘first leave home after his enlistment some eight or nine months before’ (p.106). Wilfred’s father had formed a military band and orchestra at the A.V.C barracks, and had been trying to get his family up to live with him in Woolwich. Houses were almost impossible to come by in the area, but Wilfred notes that his father had come up with a solution. The Government, Wilfred states, had ‘decided that the war was going to continue for some time, and began to build a colony of…bungalows at Eltham for Woolwich Arsenal workers’. Wilfred’s father told him to ‘apply at the local Labour Exchange for a job in Woolwich Arsenal, then we could get one of these new bungalows’ (p.107). The next day, at 16 years of age, Wilfred got on the train to London and got a post in the Royal Ordnance Office and his family received a lovely bungalow. Wilfred notes, ‘the cotton mill…the weekly round of choir practises…were obliterated’ (p.108) from his mind in one single stroke.

In 1918, Wilfred enlisted in the Navy before receiving demobilisation in 1919. His time at the Navy is not explicitly spoken about or discussed in his memoir, and is only briefly referred to later in Wilfred’s life when he goes to hospital: ‘this was the first time I had been in hospital since 1918, in the Gillingham Naval Hospital, and it was a most depressing experience’ (p.173). Wilfred is rather candid throughout his memoir, and so perhaps the exclusion of his time in the Navy suggests that it was a very difficult period that he would rather leave in the past, then reminisce and reflect. As Johnathan Bolton writes, ‘the war marked the end of one life and the beginning of another…life as they had known, and in some ways, idealised it, had ended’ (2006, p.156). Wilfred’s memoir is split into two parts. The first ends just before his enlistment in the Navy, and the second begins at the beginning of WWII, when Wilfred is an adult. This demonstrates the hardships and experiences of WWI have ended with the war, and Wilfred has began a new chapter of his life without that memory of war.

Wilfred’s Navy portrait

In 1938, the threat of another war loomed. Work was scarce, and Hitler’s antics in Europe had ‘naturally set the country on edge’ (p.4). In June of 1938, Wilfred attended an air raids precaution meeting at the town hall: ‘the place was packed with retired army folk and tradespeople, and I recognised very few working class people there, but at the close of the meeting I enrolled as an air raids warden’ (p.4). The week commencing the 16th June, Wilfred participated in a series of weekly lectures before having to sit examinations on anti-gas procedures and Warden’s duties. By the 25th of September, ‘people in London were queuing up for gas masks, anti-aircraft units were called up’ (p.5) and Wilfred’s son, Frank, was sent home from a school that was preparing itself for evacuees.

During the war, Wilfred’s eldest child, Mollie, was ‘about to leave the nest’ (p.6) at 17 years of age, to start her job in the War Office in London–which had been appointed by the Civil Service Commission. Reflecting back, Wilfred notes that it ‘must have been quite a strain on this young girl trying to manage on her meagre salary…it was a time when the extra few shillings now and then would have been a godsend'(p.9), but it was also a time when Wilfred did not have the extra money to spare. As J. Hughes notes, ‘war is a drain on resources, both of manpower and materials’ (1958, p.193). The war restricted people’s abilities to work and provide for themselves, as well as their families, Wilfred notes: ‘over seventy girls on the dole…my productive looms had dropped to four’ (p.3).

Child Evacuees

The start of 1940 saw the arrival of evacuees into the town of Warminster. Wilfred accommodated and helped many evacuees travelling to and from the town. He reflects on a girl called Vera Simmons–a 12 year old from North Woolwich– who forty four years later, Wilfred remains ‘close friends’ with (p.22). Wilfred’s duties as an air raids warden included ‘fitting the population of Warminster with gas masks’ (p.17); tending and answering the worries of those in the town and being trained in ‘first aid’ (p.20).

When the heavy air raids in London were taking place, Wilfred reflects on how he had not heard word from his daughter Mollie, for some weeks. Both Wilfred and his wife, Margaret, were so worried to the point of sending a wire, but on the 11th September, they received word she was well. A week later, Wilfred states another letter arrived informing him that Mollie was ‘moving to a fresh district so that she could get some sleep’ (p.24). However, the raids were impossible to escape, and Wilfred notes that Mollie eventually had ‘no water, and she was having to wash her stockings at the office, and was taking cider home to drink’ as a result (p.25). This, Wilfred adds, brought home the ‘comparative ease and security’ of his life in the country (p.25).

Aftermath of an air raid

As the war progressed, so too did the air raids. Wilfred notes how the air raids became more frequent, occurring in both the day and night. Wilfred recounts that when the daylight raids started, workers had to take cover behind ‘sandbagged and paper-covered windows’, adding that he often fulfilled the role of keeping watch ‘in the field, outside the factory, prepared to warn if danger threatened’ (p.30). Additionally, he recalls a time when a ‘squad of local defence volunteers (later called the Home Guard)’ descended onto his front garden and dug a bombing post, ‘overlooking the main Shaftesbury Road’ (p.29). Speaking of London, Amber Bell writes ‘fear was the ghost haunting wartime London- it was aways present, just out of sight and rarely acknowledged (2009, p.155). Although Wilfred didn’t live in London, as the air raids progressed, this sense of fear is prevalent. During the war, people’s lives were turned upside down and they never knew what was coming next, or what was going to appear on their doorstep.

Wilfred’s account of war provides a significant insight into the experiences his generation faced, whilst also highlighting the struggles and anxieties of the era.

Bibliography

Bell, Amy. ‘Landscapes of Fear: Wartime London, 1939-1945’. Journal of British Studies 48.1 (2009) 153-175 www.jstor.org/stable/25482966. Accessed 02.05.21

Bolton, Jonathan. ‘Mid-Term Autobiography and the Second World War.’ Journal of Modern Literature 30, no. 1 (Fall 2006): 155-172.

Hughes, J.R.T. Financing the British War Effort. The Journal of Economic History 18.2 (1958) 193-199 www.jstor.org/stable/2115103. Accessed 02.05.21

Middlebrook, Wilfred. Trumpet Voluntary, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:0527

Images

[1] Post WWI Family Portrait of Wilfred. Accessed 23.04.21

[2] Wilfred’s Navy Portrait. Accessed 23.04.21

[3] Child Evacuees. The Independent. Accessed 24.04.21. Available here: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/family-separation-second-world-war-us-immigration-evacuation-children-a8407581.html

[4] The Blitz. Historic UK. Accessed 29.04.21. Available here: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/The-Blitz/

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