The little town that I live in made its nod to the nostalgia of the 1940s this weekend. The high street was decked out with ‘Keep calm and carry on’ posters (which I know weren’t actually used during the war and were discovered after the fact in a bookshop). Vintage vehicles trundled their way onto the burgage and the church fete adopted the theme of a street party.
It was an outward pageant for the deep feelings that many people have about the war. The organisers stated that “this will be a commemoration of life and times of this community in 1941. It will remind us that everyone had a role in winning the war – even in this quiet part of England.”
There were plenty of people with direct memories of the war- recalling prisoners of war helping on the farms, evacuated children in the schools and the arrival of the Americans.
Dr. Derek Beattie gave a lecture in the morning about the homefront. In particular, he considered the darker side of evacuation. He described how children were taken out to the safety of the countryside and were cruelly selected by families- taking the strong and fit ones to work on their farms, while the sickly and be-spectacled ones were dragged door to door until a family took them in (the hellish procedure of a captain choosing their school sports team, magnified a thousand times). This meant that siblings were often separated from each other- sometimes never to be reunited. Even worse, many children were physically and sexually abused by their new families. What a war it must have been for them.
He also noted that the upper middle classes, who were well equipped with servants and generous homes, were very poor at taking in evacuees. The upturn in mysterious ‘heart conditions’ rose dramatically and rendered many wealthy families ‘medically unable’ to take the strain of looking after the filthy, ill and poor creatures landing on their doorsteps.
The local women worked on the farms and in the forestry industry, with Dr. Beattie noting that one woman he interviewed still had very strong arms, even though she is now in her 90s. One might assume that the passage of time might diminish their remembrances, but it was very much the opposite. He found that many are so elderly and in the very last twilight of their lives (with nothing to lose), that they were able to give increasingly candid interviews (as long as he didn’t talk to husbands and wives together!). Before D-Day, there were as many as 5 young men for every young woman in the town.
In a very sweet moment, Dr Beattie recalled that the region accommodated many Italian prisoners of war. “Oh, I know. I knew them!” piped up a woman, carefully dressed in period costume- complete with head scarf and wicker basket. “‘Know’ them in the biblical sense?” he teased. Everyone in the audience chuckled. Without embarrassment and with just the hint of a smile, she reiterated, “Yes, I knew them.”