‘They were the generation whose young men were killed off like flies in the flower of their youth’ (21).
War and memory are incredibly interesting yet challenging themes to explore from our chosen memoirs. Many of the authors’ war memories will be highly influenced by wider cultural narratives and they may unconsciously project their retrospective thoughts of wartime onto their recollections. David Silbey questions ‘When working-class men wrote or spoke of their loyalty to nation, how much of what they said was a genuine feeling, and how much resulted from external social and cultural pressures?’ (2004, 7). Therefore, it is important to highlight and negotiate any national ‘myths’ and focus on allowing our author’s to express and articulate their own personal memories of war.
When writing ‘Through Rough Ways’, Winifred Relph successfully allows her childhood voice to lead the narrative. When Winifred is remembering events from when she was very young, she shares her innocent and naïve thoughts with the reader, rather than letting her adult voice overshadow them. Consequently, as Winifred was only two when WWI began, her recollections of this period are raw and, I suggest, not overly intersected by public narratives.
Although Winifred does not address war as a central aspect of her memoir, the theme is carried throughout the whole narrative and she recalls the outbreak of war as a very exciting period. She writes: ‘The First World War had started and soon our village was full of the sound of marching feet – boys in khaki uniform marching through the streets on the way to the “Front” (21). Her small village of Edenbridge, usually quiet and undisturbed, was suddenly flooded with hundreds of young and excitable men.
Winifred recalls: ‘The shop was always full of soldiers drinking coffee or tea and we sat on their knees and were tossed in the air while they cracked jokes in their warm northern voices’ (21). Winifred and her younger siblings were too young to truly understand the significance of war and were simply enjoying the extra company and attention the soldiers gave them. Furthermore, the Relph family benefited financially from the influx of soldiers: ‘mother put a table up and sold cups of tea and coffee to the soldiers; and also bought a stock of soldier’s buttons, threads, and other odds and ends that might be useful to them’ (21). Winifred’s mother saw this busy period as a great opportunity to earn extra money for the family but, also, assist the soldiers and the overall war effort.
Silbey highlights: ‘The war itself demanded a near-unanimous effort from Britain. The First World War was a mass war that required the mobilization of the entire society’ (2004, 7). Like hundreds of other villages and towns across the country, Edenbridge was caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment and the severity of a looming World War had not been fully considered by most. Winifred suggests: ‘We were not to know that most of the boys would never return and the cousins would never marry – they were the generation whose young men were killed off like flies in the flower of their youth’ (21). Britain had been so quickly propelled into patriotism and ‘supporting the cause’ (23), that no one could have comprehended the sheer destruction, devastation and loss that WWI would bring.
Relph, Winifred, in Burnett, John, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, 3 vols (Brighton: Harvester, 1987) 2:657
Silbey, David. The British Working Class and Enthusiasm for War, 1914-1916. (London: Routledge, 2004)
Strange, Julie Marie; Carnevali, Francesca. 20th Century Britain: Economic, Cultural and Social Change. (London: Routledge, 2014)
2:657 Relph, Winifred, ‘Through Rough Ways’, TS, pp. 120 (c. 63,000 words). Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Brunel University Library
‘Poster for WWI enlistment’ from ‘gettyimages’ http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/world-war-1-recruiting-and-enlistment-poster-great-britain-news-photo/506028155 accessed: 14/12/15
‘Propaganda for WWI’ from ‘firstworldwar’ http://www.firstworldwar.com/posters/uk.htm accessed: 14/12/15
‘WWI British patriotic postcard’ from worldwar1postcards.com accessed: 14/12/15