Home Fires Season 2 Episode 6 The True Cost of War

As the second season of Home Fires draws to its dramatic close I thought I would concentrate on a question I have spent a great deal of time working on: the true cost of war The cost of the war in human terms. Not numbers of killed or wounded but the impact it had on their families.

HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured: CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam Brindsley, DANIEL RYAN as Bryn Brindsley and WILL ATTENBOROUGH as David Brindsley. Photographer: STUART WOOD This image is the copyright of ITV and must be credited. The images are for one use only and to be used in relation to Home Firs, any further charge could incur a fee.

HOME FIRES
© ITV

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Clara Millburn

One of the cruellest notifications a family could receive, short of killed, was Missing in Action. This was the fate of the Brindsley family in Home Fires. Miriam refused to believe that David was dead and held onto that hope against all the odds. In Jambusters I told the story of diarist Clara Milburn whose son, Alan, was posted as ‘missing’ after Dunkirk. Her diary entries over the summer of 1940 make haunting reading. In June she wrote: ‘How curious this life is. A sort of deep stillness comes over everything from time to time. There is not much traffic on the roads during the week and the village seems empty in the evenings. One misses the young life everywhere, particularly Alan coming in in the early evening.’ A month later there was still no news of her son: ‘Always one is thinking of him, wondering whether he still lives and if so, whether he is well, where he is, what he does all day, what discomforts he is suffering. If… if… And so the days go by.’ At the end of July she heard that he was a prisoner of war and hugged her husband ‘for sheer joy at the good news’. It was not until October that she received a letter from him, a full nine months after she had last spoken to him over the phone. Alan Milburn returned safely but a very changed man.

Dame Barbara Cartland in ATS uniform, c. 1942

Dame Barbara Cartland in ATS uniform, c. 1942

For Barbara Cartland the news from France was the same as for Clara Milburn. Both her brothers, Ronald and Tony, were fighting with the British Expeditionary Force. Ronald wrote to his mother just before he went into action: ‘This is just to send you my love and bless you always. Don’t be anxious if there is a long silence from me – the fog of war is pretty impenetrable. We shall win in the end, but there’s horror and tribulation ahead of all of us. We can’t avoid it. What a waste it all is, but after months of desolation we shall gain and retain what you and I have always understood the meaning of – freedom.’ Barbara’s mother, Polly, had lost her husband in 1918 and knew full well the horror of the telegram. It came twice over that hot, dry summer of 1940. Both her sons were ‘missing’. In January 1941 came the terrible news that Ronald had been killed in action on 30 May 1940, hit in the head by a German bullet. Barbara wrote: ‘We had gradually been losing hope of hearing that he was alive – now we knew the truth. My mother was wonderful. “Missing” is the cruellest uncertainty of all, as she well knew, for my father had been missing in 1918; and that ghastly waiting, watching, hoping and praying was hers all over again – not twice, but three times, for Tony was still “missing”.’ Tony Cartland had been killed the day before his brother, hit by a shell. For Polly and Barbara Cartland there was no happy ending to their story.

In Home Fires there are men caught up in the same drama as the Cartland brothers and Alan Milburn. Sarah Collingbourne’s husband, Adam, is missing in France while David Brindsley has miraculously returned from an horrific accident at sea and Bob Simms, wounded at Dunkirk, was sent back to Great Paxford in an ambulance. It is easy to understand why Miriam clung so desperately to her belief that David was still alive and remarkable that he was able to come home.

imagesOf the vicar’s fate we know little. Ronald Cartland described ‘the fog of war’ meaning there was confusion and chaos as indeed there was. And the pressure on families was immense. My grandfather was taken prisoner on Singapore on 15 February 1942 and the first official notice my grandmother received that her husband was alive but a POW was on Christmas Eve of that year, almost 11 months after he had been captured. For her the fog of war was exceptionally thick. And for her there was the added problem that as he was ‘missing’ he was neither dead, in which case she would have received a war widow’s pension, or alive, in which case he would have received army pay. So for nearly a year she and tens of thousands of other wives received no money.

How did they cope? Sometimes firms would make hardship payments to wives of men who had worked with them pre-war but more often than not they had to rely on family support or charities. The oldest military charity in Britain was SSAFA – the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. It was founded in 1885 to provide lifelong support to serving men, women and veterans from the British Armed Forces and their families or dependents. In the Second World War SSAFA helped hundreds of thousands of families and their support was invaluable then, as it is still today.

So as this second season of Home Fires gives us a powerful finale, it is worth reflecting that there are very real parallels between the experiences of the fictional characters and their historic counterparts. We are going to be left with more questions than answers but then that reflects the true cost of war. Let’s just hope that one day we will get a third season to give us some answers.

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Home Fires Season 2 Episode 5 Fur and Friction

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: FRANCESCA ANNIS as Joyce, CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph,RUTH GEMMELL as Sarah,FENELLA WOOLGAR as Alison, CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam, LEANNE BEST as Teresa.SAMANTHA BOND as Frances,FRANCES GREY as Erica and CLAIRE RUSBROOK as Pat. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation to HOME FIRES SERIES 2.

HOME FIRES SERIES 2
© ITV

When I am asked what it is about the Second World War that fascinates me so much I reply that it is not war but people who excite my interest: how individuals cope in a time of emergency and how such events impact upon their later lives. One of the practical aspects that had to be considered was clothing and it is something I am regularly asked about in regard to Home Fires. Just to be clear, I am not involved in the production of the drama – my involvement stops with the scripts – but I did have the great good fortune to talk to the series costume designer, Lucinda Wright, in the lead up to filming series 1 and she took me round the fabulous collections of clothes at Angels Costumes in London. Their website claims they have over one million items and eight miles of hanging costume. Well, I didn’t see them all but Lucinda and I did discuss colour and fabrics in some detail.

HOME FIRES EPISODE 4 Pictured:CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph Farrow. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation the HOME FIRES on ITV.

CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph Farrow.
© ITV

Everyone in Home Fires is dressed to their status. Steph Farrow wears dungarees in the fields but once she arrives at a WI meeting she is scrubbed clean and wearing a patterned dress, as would have been the case in the 1940s. Edith Jones, the wonderful diarist whose jottings form the golden thread through my book Home Fires, would always change into a frock in the evening for supper, even if it was just her and Jack eating dinner together. She is similar to Steph in many ways. At the other end of the spectrum is Joyce Cameron. Always meticulously turned out and often wearing fur. Until the 1970s when there was a huge animal rights’ movement against fur coats, women of a certain standing would have one, two or even three fur coats in their wardrobe: a mink for the evening, a pine-marten for day use and a fox stole to wear over a tweed coat.

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One major change in Britain during 1940 was the proportion of people wearing uniform. You might not have noticed the change between series 1 and series 2 but it is striking and absolutely reflects what was happening in the country. About a third of the population of Britain were entitled to wear uniform during the Second World War. This would give a figure of somewhere in the region of 15 million people, a large number of whom were women. So we have in Great Paxford a mixture of RAF, Army and women’s service uniforms – that much is obvious. But then there are the women working in the Barden’s factory who all wear pinafores over their own clothes to protect them. Clare wears a uniform when she is working for Frances Barden as a maid, though not on her days off with Spencer. House coats, such as those worn by Pat, were popular and a sensible way to keep the wear and tear of ordinary clothes to a minimum.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured : FRANCES GREY as Erica Campbell, CLAIRE RUSHBROOK as Pat Simms and SAMANTHA BOND as Frances Barden. Photographer: STUART WOOD This image is the copyright of ITV and must be credited. The images are for one use only and to be used in relation to Home Firs, any further charge could incur a fee.

House coats galore! © ITV

With so many people wearing them, it is unsurprising that the general public knew how to ‘read’ uniforms across a street or at the scene of an incident, and could identify at a glance a man or woman’s job, rank and status. And it was very important to know and trust the person who was issuing an instruction, especially during the Blitz, when people needed to know who to listen to or appeal to in a crisis. Aside from emergencies, uniforms had a hierarchy with implications on many levels, some of them more personal than official.

WW2 Christmas card, Escort! A Chelsea Pensioner looks in admiration at an RAF airman with an elegant woman on each arm. 1941

WW2 Christmas card, Escort! A Chelsea Pensioner looks in admiration at an RAF airman with an elegant woman on each arm.
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Some uniforms, such as the Royal Air Force blue, gave men real status in women’s eyes. This was partly because it comprised a smaller body of men than the army, and their jobs, especially the pilots, were considered heroic and extremely dangerous. They were known as ‘Our Glamour Boys’. The PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry) suffered in their khaki uniforms from being the least admired of the three services by the general public. Members of the women’s services (just over 100,000 in June 1941) were said to grade potential boyfriends in an order of eligibility in which ‘RAF officers rated tops, being classified in turn by rank and number of decorations; naval officers came second and brown jobs a long way behind’.

So as you are watching Episode 5 of Home Fires, it is worth looking out for the distinctions of dress and the way different people react to it. That is, if you have time to notice that level of detail when there is so much drama going on around you. This is another breathtaking hour where I lurched from near tears of enchantment to gasps of horror. Enjoy Sunday evening!

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Home Fires Season 2 Episode 4 Love and Sex in Times of War

‘If you put men and women together in close proximity in a danger shared, a mutual attraction is not only the inevitable result, it is what we should expect, and we should be very surprised and perturbed from a national point of view if it wasn’t.’ Thus wrote the English novelist, Barbara Cartland in 1945. As a welfare officer for the women’s services during the Second World War she was warm, generous and young people responded to her: ‘No one has ever minded when I have talked to them, and I’ve been both personal and intrusive. Being a novelist helps. I don’t know why, but people always want to confide in novelists, and the other thing which I believe makes everything alright is the fact that I am sincere. I do believe what I say.’ There were those in society who judged young people who got into trouble and condemned them but Cartland thought that was unfair and wrong. They were young, in love, in danger and in a hurry.

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From today’s perspective it is difficult to imagine or understand the stigma caused by extramarital affairs or illegitimate children. For both men and women during the war there was a sense that living for today was fine because tomorrow you might die and this spilled over into behaviour which to some seemed reprehensible but which to others was inevitable and not even particularly surprising. ‘War Aphrodisia’ was traditionally ascribed to men in battle and was a well-recognised condition. In total war, as the Second World War undoubtedly was for Britain and mainland Europe, a hedonistic impulse reached many other segments of society. Later in the war the American GIs turned many heads and over 60,000 GI brides made their way to the New World in the immediate aftermath of the Second War. But that is all in the future.

The emancipation of women in Britain after the First World War had led, briefly, to a more liberated attitude towards fashion and behaviour. One commentator wrote: ‘Women bobbed their hair, donned short skirts, smoked in public and wore the heavy makeup which had formerly been the attribute of the harlot.’ The seeds of emancipation had been sown and the flame was fanned hardest in the USA where the combination of a buoyant stock market, bootleg gin and the racy novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald fuelled the frenetic pace of the social revolution.

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‘Jazz babies’ in Hollywood, 1927

Hollywood played its part, producing erotic films for a mass audience and elevating the leading stars to almost legendary status. Audiences flocked to films such as Alimony (1917), which promised ‘brilliant men, beautiful jazz babies, champagne baths, midnight revels, petting parties in the purple dawn, all ending in one terrifying climax that makes you gasp.’ The Great Depression put a stop to much of this and divorce rates in Britain plunged along with the stock market, reaching a low in 1933, down 40% from the 1928 level. The number of weddings also fell.

The circumstances of total war changed both attitudes and opportunities: ‘We were not really immoral, there was a war on,’ explained one British housewife. The ‘what the heck I could be dead tomorrow’ attitude of some of the fighter pilots, for example, brought many couples together and hastily arranged marriages, with often only forty-eight hours to spend together, were not uncommon. Few couples could consider what would happen after the war, when life might return to normal. They lived for that day and perhaps the next. ‘They were loved and beloved, and by this stage in the war love was about the only thing left unrationed.’

Unit stills photography

copyright ITV

As we dig deeper into the fourth episode of HOME FIRES, war aphrodisia has reached Great Paxford. Electric tensions spark and shock around the village in the ferment of high drama. Pat’s nascent relationship with Marek has caused gasps and quickening heartbeats not just for careful observers like Erica, but for the rest of us watching on, agonising over her every move, desperate for her to duck and dive to avoid the eagle eye of Bob. How can she be so brave as to carry on her relationship with Marek while her deeply troubled husband is trying to exert his influence over her?

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A contemporary description from a Manchester housewife in 1944 might throw some light on this: ‘There was nothing cheap about our affair, and if Rick had my body, my heart was with my husband and somehow I didn’t feel that I was doing anything wrong.’

Other relationships stop and start. Emotions that would normally have been ignored or suppressed, rise to the surface with a juvenile and intoxicating urgency. Some women find themselves almost out of their depth and exert a rigorous check on their emotions. Thanks to an intervention by Joyce Cameron in the last episode, Sarah Collingbourne is brought to an abrupt halt in her dalliance with the delightful, handsome and oh-so-eligible Wing Commander from RAF Tabley Wood.

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But what of Miss Fenchurch? She might have danced with him at the Czech Camp but is there a chance of something in the future? Is Laura Campbell’s reputation going to blot out the early signs of love with Tom, the handsome young pilot who nobly stands up to the prissy but not-above-buying-black market-butter, Mrs Talbot? This fetid atmosphere of possibility belongs, of course, in a 9pm drama in 2016, but it accurately reflects the intoxicating atmosphere of the summer of 1940 when no-one knew what might happen next. The Second World War had entered a phase of unprecedented high stakes and it is not surprising that people reacted to it by questioning their tomorrow.

I am constantly excited and delighted by Simon Block’s brilliantly observed scripts. He has succeeded in chiming with the changing times. The pace of this series increases as the pace of the war did too. We never quite know what turn is to come next but when it comes it is both thrilling and fitting. Robert Quinn’s outstanding directing never lets us rest for a minute, yet it is not hurried. We are on the edge of our seats, as the country was in 1940. Home Fires is an all-round production with an exceptional cast, a superb production team and an energetic editorial and post-production set up that weaves the magic together as Samuel Sims’ music sprinkles the icing on the cake. Enjoy Sunday 23 April. It is a mesmerising episode.

The first section of this blog appeared in the USA in October 2015 and is an abridged version of a chapter in Stranger in the House, entitled Sex and Love in Times of War.

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Home Fires Season 2 Episode 3 The Grey Market


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As episode 3 opens we find ourselves in mid-July 1940. The view from the USA looks bleak, as described in the New York Times that month. It is oft repeated but bears another repetition as it sums up so beautifully the parlous state of Britain at that moment in history:

The folk, old towns of Britain, the hills and cliffs and shores and meadows, rich with history, the homes and lives of forty-five million people, the great British traditions of human worth and dignity, the folk sayings, the deep wisdom and the long-suffering hopes of a race – these, not being pleasing to Hitler, are condemned…

From our own shores we cannot see the shadow over ancient gardens, over houses hoary with age, over the graves of poets and philosophers, and the tombs of the martyrs. We know only that one of the green and lovely oases of civilisation in the wilderness of man’s time on earth, is foully threatened and that the whole world for evermore will be the poorer if it falls.

The British Channel Islands, close to the French coast, have fallen into German hands. Hitler has told his military to plan for an invasion of the United Kingdom, to be called Operation Sea Lion. In Great Paxford Stanley Farrow firmly believes the operation will succeed. He has increased his determination to safe-guard the farm. With the help of Isobel he lays barbed wire and farm machinery across the fields.

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People put all manner of blocks in the roads in an attempt to impede German progress following an invasion

Meantime, Little Stan has other ideas about how to prepare for the Germans. All over the country people were anxious, trying to work out who might be a spy or an enemy, and some ridiculous misunderstandings arose, as we shall see. All foreign nationals were picked up and imprisoned either in jails or in camps on the Isle of Man. Many of the men were later freed, as they were considered no serious threat to the country, and were enlisted in the Pioneer Corps. But for the time-being the atmosphere was febrile.

imagesThe summer of 1940 saw an increase in the number of foods rationed. In March all meat was rationed and in July tea and margarine were added. Tea rationing was particularly unpopular but there were ways to increase the quantities of food available on the ration. Gardens were turned over to vegetable growing and the Women’s Institutes were very active in growing onions and tomatoes for their local country markets. Yet some things were very hard to come by in quantity and this is where people became resourceful and traded illegally. Much has been written about the Black Market, most of it speculative, because few records were kept and although some dealers were caught by the police, many were not. What I have always found more interesting and believable is the Grey Market. That was not even an official title, so vague were the lines that people were prepared to cross. People in the countryside had greater access to fresh food during the war and were happy to exchange honey for home-made lard, or eggs for butter. It was not illegal but some frowned upon it. Mainly, I suspect, if they had nothing to exchange or barter.

In Home Fires I wrote about a WI member called Sibyl Norcott whose father, Mr Shacklady, sailed very close to the wind. He had added pigs to the farm for the duration of the war. pigs_mainThis way the family could have meat and lard from the pigs, cream and butter from the cows, eggs from hens and ducks, flesh from turkeys, vegetables from the garden and fruit from the orchard. Sybil’s father once swapped a ham for a hundredweight bag of sugar and both parties were delighted. She quickly made the point that Mr Shacklady did not keep all the sugar for himself but distributed it among the neighbours in their Cheshire hamlet. He then bought Sibyl a canning machine so that she could make a few bob on the side helping WIs and other local farmers’ wives to can their vegetables, beans and fruit for the winter. It was a good little business for both of them.

People in official positions, such as the butcher in Home Fires, had to be scrupulous with their returns. The paperwork was a headache with forms to be filled in six copies and submitted to the local Food Office along with the surrendered food coupons.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: DANIEL RYAN as Bryn. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation to HOME FIRES SERIES 2.

Bryn.
© ITV

Although Bryn Brindsley is, I am sure, above suspicion, a lady I know of discovered that her greengrocer would sell ‘special’ potatoes to certain customers. One day she got up the courage to ask him if she could have two pounds of his ‘special’ potatoes (these were not rationed) and when she got home she was delighted to discover she had one pound of potatoes and a one pound ingot of sugar.

With so much bureaucracy there was plenty of opportunity to exploit the systems that the government put in place but in reality people understood that rationing had been introduced so everyone had fair shares and in terms of overall percentage it was a drop in the ocean in comparison with the food bought and sold on the ration. But the grey market persisted in the countryside and the impact it had on the economy will probably never be known. However, a dozen fresh eggs or a pat of fresh butter was always a welcome addition to the larder.

Meanwhile, the war has begun to take a serious turn and the final quarter of episode 3 is tense and dramatic. The juxtaposition of everyday concerns with situations that could spell life or death is where Simon Block’s drama sparkles. Enjoy Sunday evening!

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Home Fires Season 2 Episode 2 Hearts Aflame

Episode 2 of Home Fires is packed full of love, loss, hope and pain but I do not intend to write anything in this blog that would give away the plot. Instead I thought it would be more fun to explore themes which were introduced in Episode 1. The first is that of divorce. It considered a disgrace to be cited in a divorce at almost every level of society. The stigma attached to any part in the unravelling of a marriage is today inconceivable. In the United Kingdom there were 470,549 marriages and just 7,755 divorces.

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That was to rise dramatically to over 60,000 in 1947 as couples found they were incompatible in the sober light of post-war Britain. Those figures compared with 241,000 marriages and 120,000 divorces in 2011 show just how rare divorce was in the era of Home Fires.
Laura Campbell’s naming as the co-respondent in the formal break up of Richard and Charlotte Bowers’ marriage is therefore deeply humiliating and people’s attitudes towards her reflect the intolerance of 1940’s society. The fact that Wing Commander Richard Bowers was a predatory man has nothing to do with the way she is treated in Great Paxford. In reality, a disgraced woman would have brought shame not only on herself, damaging her chances of making a ‘suitable’ marriage, but also on her entire family. I recall as a child in the 1960s being told in a very hush hush way that one of my relations was getting something beginning with ‘D’. I immediately assume this meant death, but in reality she was leaving her abusive husband and filing for divorce. It was the first time I had ever hear the word. Laura is contending with a very difficult situation and we will soon learn whether there are people in the village who have sympathy with her.

imgresAnother theme is the impending invasion. All over the country people were preparing for invasion. Farmers, in particular, were called to help prevent aircraft from landing on their fields by rolling farm machinery and old junk from their buildings onto fields that might be used as a landing strip. Some villages protected themselves by rolling huge tree trunks across the entrance roads.They were often on wheels so they could be rolled back to allow legitimate vehicles through. Others created makeshift blocks out of anything they could find which would hamper the enemy’s progress.

imgresSignposts were removed from roads, railway and bus stop signs were taken down in an effort to confuse the enemy when they landed and tried to make headway inland. Whether any of this would have worked in the face of the Wehrmacht is something that we shall never know as fortunately it was never tested. But make no mistake, even Churchill believed it unlikely that Britain would not soon be under the jackboots of an implacable foe.

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Enjoy Episode 2. It is magnificent. Simon Block’s writing sparkles through the words and actions of the outstanding cast. The mood in Great Paxford is tense, tempers are short and surprises come thick and fast. Roll on Sunday evening!

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Home Fires Season 2 Episode 1

Life on the Edge of Europe

Three weeks after the evacuation at Dunkirk, France fell to the Germans. Amongst the Allies who had been fighting were Polish and Czechoslovakian forces who were at risk of captured and put into German Prisoner of War camps. Churchill realised that if this could be avoided it would mean he would have experienced, battle-hardened troops in Britain. So he ordered them to be rescued from southern France. In the end some 20,000 Polish and nearly 5,000 Czechoslovakian soldiers and airmen were brought to Britain and proved themselves more than worthy of the trust Churchill had placed in them. The Czechoslovakians sailed into Liverpool and were put on a train to Bunbury from where they marched 8 miles to Cholmondeley Castle.

home-slider3The villagers along the way cheered them and the soldiers immediately fell in love with the beautiful Cheshire countryside. They camped in the fields around the Castle, which had already been requisitioned for another military use, and they remained there throughout the glorious summer of 1940 until they moved on to Leamington Spa to a more permanent camp.

The mood in the early summer of 1940 was one of agitation, anxiety and apprehension, mixed with fear. People were told that careless talk would cost lives and that they should be on the lookout for spies. Signposts were taken down or blacked out, so that moving around in the dark became even more difficult.

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Signposts were removed to fool the feared invaders and people had to learn to navigate without way markers

There was a genuine and powerful fear of invasion. Even Churchill thought it unlikely that Britain could withstand a full-blown attack by the Luftwaffe and seaborne troops. The Battle for the Atlantic, which is the off-screen backdrop to our series, was about to enter troubled times. The German U-Boats had become ever more effective at targeting convoys and fears grew for the safety of passengers, especially evacuee children, who were setting out west for the safety of Canada or America. Yet once France had fallen there was a sense in Britain that, as the last man standing, on the edge of Europe, we would somehow defy the odds and emerge victorious. This mood is well-documented in diaries, letters and newspapers from the era.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: FRANCESCA ANNIS as Joyce, CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph,RUTH GEMMELL as Sarah,FENELLA WOOLGAR as Alison, CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam, LEANNE BEST as Teresa.SAMANTHA BOND as Frances,FRANCES GREY as Erica and CLAIRE RUSBROOK as Pat. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation to HOME FIRES SERIES 2.

HOME FIRES SERIES 2
Pictured: FRANCESCA ANNIS as Joyce, CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph,RUTH GEMMELL as Sarah,FENELLA WOOLGAR as Alison, CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam, LEANNE BEST as Teresa.SAMANTHA BOND as Frances,FRANCES GREY as Erica and CLAIRE RUSBROOK as Pat.
copyright ITV . must only be used in relation to HOME FIRES SERIES 2.

So, for our village of Great Paxford, the sense of anxiety about the future is very much there. The incoming Czechoslovakian soldiers add a fresh element to the drama, as does the permeating anxiety about foreigners, spies and Nazi sympathisers. However, life did go on during the war and it will go on in Great Paxford. The everyday lives of the characters are of course affected by the external influences but themes of love, loss, suspicion and excitement are constants. We pick up where we left off with Laura Campbell named in the divorce of her lover, Richard Bowers; Alison Scotlock is still in trouble with the police over accounting and Claire Hillman is as in love with Spencer as she was at the end of the last series. Bryn the butcher is typical of the kind of man who is determined not to be cowed by the threat of invasion. He has a business to run, a pregnant wife to protect and a missing son to worry about. Pat, on the other hand, is once again knocked down: not by husband Bob, this time, but by a brawl outside a pub. For her the war is about to change her life but in a wholly unexpected way. This episode opens with the farmer going about her business and the army going about theirs. After all, this is wartime…

Home Fires airs on Sunday on PBS Masterpiece. It is created and written by Simon Block and inspired by my book Home Fires which tells the true story of the WI on the home front from 1939-1945.

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Europe – an historical perspective

Wednesday 29 March 2017 is the most significant day in the life of the United Kingdom this century and possibly even of the last forty-four years. Some go as far as to say it represents the most momentous decision taken by this country since the end of the Second World War. Whatever side you are on in the question about whether it is a good or bad thing that Britain is going to leave the European Union, it cannot be denied that invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is a noteworthy event. The Britain of today will look different in two, five, twenty years time. The anxiety must be what that Britain might look like and how will the changes affect all our futures.

Oxford, my home city, voted 70% to Remain in the EU. We have residents, workers and visitors from all over the world

As a historian I find momentous and noteworthy events both alarming and exciting. As such I turned back to history to give me some lead on the whole development of the idea of a united Europe and examine what its forefathers had in mind in the immediate aftermath of 1939-45 for the future of a war torn continent. It is a common myth that in 1940 Britain stood alone on the edge of Europe with no help or support. In exact terms we were alone but in reality we had nationals from all over the continent living, fighting and working for Britain and towards the war effort. Polish and Czech airmen flew magnificently during the Battle of Britain and were at our side in many other operations in the war including D-Day. Britain changed out of all recognition over the course of the war.

GIs at a village dance, 1944

The evacuation of people to the countryside, the influx of foreign fighters including 300,000 Canadians and a few million American GIs, mean that people living in rural villages heard accents and saw sights they had hitherto never encountered. 10,000 men from the West Indies came to Britain to enlist and were sent to North Africa and Italy in 1944. Of the GIs, over 130,000 were black soldiers and many found the non-segregation in Britain at first alarming but then a delight. They were billeted all over the country. Then there were Poles in Northern Scotland, Czechs in Cheshire, Americans in Cornwall, Canadians in Suffolk, Danes, Greeks and French in Malvern. The country was welcoming not only to foreign fighters but to refugees. Over 10,000 children arrived with the Kindertransport in 1938-39, just two years after 4,000 children from the Basque country fled here to escape the Spanish Civil War. Britain coped and despite the historic resentment of many to change, by and large they accepted the incomers.

After the war some of those who had made Britain their wartime home chose to remain here rather than returning to their countries of birth. It wasn’t perfect in the early years and there were times of strife but the country has changed over the last eighty years and I am proud to be a citizen of a wonderful, multicultural country.

Moss Side Amateur Boxing Club 1984

After the devastating years of conflict Europe had to be rebuilt and countries aligned so that such a violent and destructive conflict could never happen again. There are many significant players who had a finger in the early version of the European pie but one of the most fascinating from my perspective was a man who had spent the pinnacle of his career training volunteers to enter Nazi occupied Europe and cause mayhem, murder and sabotage. His name was Sir Colin McVean Gubbins. His name may not be familiar to British or American readers but in France, Belgium, Poland, Czech Republic, Norway and the Netherlands he is recognized as a great hero.

Sir Colin Gubbins KCMG

Born in Tokyo in 1896 he was sent, aged seven, to live with his maternal grandparents on the Isle of Mull. He did not see his father or mother for five years but he described his childhood as blissfully happy. After school he attended the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and in the summer of 1914 he was in Heidelberg learning German. In August had to make a frantic dash back to Britain to avoid arrest. He succeeded by disguising himself as a child and later wrote: ‘My escape from being imprisoned in Germany was entirely due to the kindness of the Englishman, a complete stranger, who lent me £1 on Cologne platform.’ Gubbins was at Ypres for the first and second battles, then on the Somme where he won his Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry. He was shot in the neck on the Somme in October and was in hospital for eleven days; he was gassed in 1917 and suffered from trench fever in April 1918 but was fit enough to join General Ironside, later commander-in-chief of the Home Forces, as ADC on the autumn mission to Archangel in Russia to prepare a winter campaign. After the war, then aged twenty-three, Gubbins was sent to Ireland where he was given a three day course in guerrilla warfare and observed the methods used by the nationalists at first-hand. In 1923 he learned Russian and then went to India to learn Urdu.

Promoted to major in February 1934, he was posted to the War Office and appointed GS02 in a new section of MTI (Military Training Instruction), which was the policy making arm of the Military Training Directorate. In this role he was sent in 1938 to Czechoslovakia to oversee the withdrawal of Czech forces from the Sudetenland. It was something that he found exceptionally repugnant and it remained a matter of lasting shame to him for the rest of his life. It also gave him a first-hand view of the brutal force of Nazi expansion.

Stay-Behind Fighters being trained at Coleshill House near Swindon

In the summer of 1940, after the fall of France, the invasion of Britain seemed imminent. Gubbins was put in charge of training stay-behind parties of men who would work locally to sabotage Germans stores, blow up bridges and generally slow down their advance parties. When the threat of invasion lessened he was transferred to a new section called Special Operations Executive, known by its nickname Baker Street which was the London HQ. Its aim was to train foreign fighters who would be sent back to their own countries to carry out secret missions.

He moved to the Highlands to set up Special Training Schools where agents from occupied countries could be trained in the brutal arts of guerrilla or, as Churchill called it, ungentlemanly warfare. Men and women were turned into silent killers, explosives experts, radio operators and sabotage agents who were parachuted into France, Belgium, Poland, the Czech Republic, Norway and so on to carry out their secret and often deadly work. Gubbins worked with SOE for the whole war and clocked up some notable successes in Norway, France and, most spectacularly, in the Czech Republic when two agents trained in the Highlands carried out the successful assassination of Acting Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich in May 1942. The reprisals for the murder of Germans was hideous but the heads of the various governments-in-exile in London thought the boost to a country’s morale and the confirmation that they had not been forgotten was a price worth paying.

Jozef Gabcik (left) and Jan Kubis who carried out the assassination of Heydrich in May 1942

At the end of the war Gubbins’ department was shut down. His biographer wrote of him:

Britain was spared the shame and misery of enemy occupation; without this experience it is difficult to appreciate the part played by clandestine resistance both in restoring national self-respect and in permitting courageous individuals to escape from the ignominy of their situation. . . It was as a resistance leader that he came to fashion Special Operations Executive, and to write his own page in the history of almost every country occupied by the enemy in the Second World War.

So respected was he in the countries that had been occupied by the Nazis that the government had to waive the rule that an officer could receive only four foreign honours for services in the war. Eventually he received more fourteen awards including the highest from Norway, Denmark, Greece, France, Poland, Belgium and the United States of America. Gubbins received a knighthood in 1946 and began the second half of his life’s work, which was to promote European Unity. Despite the fact he had spent five years trying to devise every possible lethal means of undermining the Germans, he realized that the only way of securing a lasting peace in Europe was to work together.

Jozef Retinger, founder of the European Movement, lived in exile in London having been expelled from his native country by the communist government in 1945

In 1946 an old Polish friend, Jozef Retinger, asked him to help set up the Independent League for Economic Cooperation in Brussels. This was merged with various others in 1947 to become the International Committee of the Movement for European Unity with Churchill’s son-in-law, Duncan Sandys as chairman. In 1954 he was asked to represent Britain as a founder member of the Bilderberg Group, an organisation set up to promote a strengthening of US-European relations and preventing another world war. When asked what he considered to be his greatest achievement he said the role he had been most honoured to play was in helping to prevent a further war.

Gubbins died in 1976 at the age of eighty, by which time Britain had been a full member of the European Union for three years. I was sixteen at the time and two years later I would leave home to live in Germany. I spent two years in Munich prior to university and then a year in Vienna. Later I spent time in Paris, Prague, Warsaw, Milan, Naples, and many other cities where my work took me. Freedom of movement and the lack of borders is something I now take for granted.

With my German friend, Atti, who changed my life when I was 17 and living in Germany. She made me proud to be a European

Will all this change? I wonder what Sir Colin McVean Gubbins would think of the step his country is about to take on 29 March 2017 and where he might imagine it could lead…

Gubbins’ story will be told in full in my next book Behind Closed Doors. It will be published in spring 2018.

Celebrating Home Fires Season 2 on PBS

SignpostSeason 2 of Home Fires, the British drama series about life on the Home Front during the Second World War, is about to air again on PBS starting Sunday 2nd April. As the drama moves forward in time I thought it would be useful to give a little background to the historical period against which it is set. The summer of 1940 was the most dramatic of the Second World War for the British population. It was the moment when the country believed it would be invaded by the Germans. It was a full eighteen months before the USA would enter the war and the feeling of vulnerability was profound. Families flocked to send their children to safety in the USA and Canada, believing they would be safer there, despite the risk of U-Boat attack in the Atlantic. The country was on edge. Everyone held their collective breath.

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It is key to understanding series 2 of Home Fires that although we know the outcome of the war, the villagers in Great Paxford do not. They believe, as even Churchill did, that invasion was imminent. When we left Great Paxford at the end of series 1 the villagers all stood on the street, spell-bound by the sight of hundreds of aircraft flying south. The so-called Phoney War had come to an end and the real war was about to begin.

In fact, by the time those planes were flying south, Hitler’s troops had already invaded Denmark and Norway. The British Expeditionary Force had been guarding the Maginot Line for the last nine months but was woefully unprepared for what was to come. On 10th May 1940 two things happened that changed the course of the Second World War: Hitler launched the Blitzkrieg against France, Belgium and neutral Holland, and in Britain Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. For two weeks the BEF and its Allies fought to hold out against the German onslaught but towards the end of May it was obvious that they had suffered a humiliating defeat and Churchill ordered a retreat. The familiar story of Dunkirk now unfolded. Hundreds of boats, ships, barges and tugs were sent to the rescue and over 330,000 British and Allied soldiers were picked up from the beaches of Dunkirk over a period of several days.

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My grandfather was pulled out of the water by a Thames barge on 2nd June and brought back to Southampton by ship. ‘The sailors who dried our clothes pinched all our buttons and insignia but we were so relieved to be safe we didn’t bother about it.’ The following night he was reunited with his wife, Alex: ‘It was one of the strangest contrasts of the war. One night I was standing up to my neck in water with very little chance of rescue and the next I was eating dinner with my wife in the Midland Hotel in Manchester.’

Three weeks later France fell and Britain stood alone. A brilliant piece in the New York Times from July 1940 summed up the situation in Britain seen from the other side of the great Atlantic Ocean:

The folk, old towns of Britain, the hills and cliffs and shores and meadows, rich with history, the homes and lives of forty-five million people, the great British traditions of human worth and dignity, the folk sayings, the deep wisdom and the long-suffering hopes of a race – these, not being pleasing to Hitler, are condemned…
From our own shores we cannot see the shadow over ancient gardens, over houses hoary with age, over the graves of poets and philosophers, and the tombs of the martyrs. We know only that one of the green and lovely oases of civilisation in the wilderness of man’s time on earth, is foully threatened and that the whole world for evermore will be the poorer if it falls.

I will write a blog each week to introduce the coming episode. No spoilers, I promise, but I hope some background detail can add to the enjoyment of the series.

Home Fires is written by Simon Block and inspired by my book of the same name. My book is non-fiction so you won’t find the stories of Frances Barden, Joyce Cameron or Alison Scotlock in the book but you will be able to see the true story of the women who inspired Simon Block’s compelling characters.

See the much-anticipated final season of this beloved series on Sundays, April 2nd – May 7th, 2017 at 9/8c on MASTERPIECE.

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A Touch of Class

imagesPart of my work as an author is to give lectures. I do two six week seasons in the autumn and spring all over the country, speaking about the social history of the Second World War among other topics. The ITV drama series HOME FIRES, inspired by my book Jambusters, is a favourite theme at the end of my talk about women and war. Everywhere I have been since May 2016 I have been harangued by people who are desperate for answers, confused why the series ended on such a dramatic cliff-hanger and who would love nothing more than to see HOME FIRES return to their screens. I politely explain the ITV line that the broadcaster is seeking constantly to refresh their offering. That explanation is not always well received and often produces sarcastic laughter.

Last week I was lecturing in Exeter and among the audience was the mother of a senior crew member from the drama. She told me that she had learned from her son that the reason it had been cancelled was because it was too white and middle class. I had guessed that might have been one of the reasons it was not re-commissioned but I had not heard the remark from a reliable source. I cannot let that go. This is my response, tempered after a week of editing my thoughts and controlling my indignation.

Wartime clothes modelled outside Imperial War Museum, London, March 2015

Wartime clothes modelled outside Imperial War Museum, London, March 2015

Rural Britain in 1939 was predominantly white. That cannot be denied. But it was far from middle-class. Mass Observation, that brilliant window on everyday life, presented the most valuable of vignettes in its myriad reports, diaries, questionnaires and observations during the early years of the war. Set up in 1937 by three young men, anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet and journalist Charles Madge, and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, its aim was to document and record everyday life in Britain through the eyes of ordinary people. They listed four classes in Britain in the late nineteen thirties: upper class, middle class, artisan class and unskilled working class. They estimated that the working class accounted for sixty-five per cent of the population as opposed to roughly fourteen per cent in 2015. The upper class, or aristocracy, represented five per cent and the remainder (thirty per cent) was split between the burgeoning middle class of the nineteen thirties and the artisan class, which included skilled workers on low incomes. This is reflected in all the research I have done for my books on the social history of the Second World War and was picked up by the writer Simon Block for HOME FIRES.

Bunbury - the ancient Cheshire village that became Great Paxford

Bunbury – the ancient Cheshire village that became Great Paxford

A typical village in the early twentieth century would have a manor house, inhabited by the squire and his family, who might be resident full time or who might only come down for the hunting. Then there would be the farmers, some owning their own farms, others as tenant farmers but many of very long standing. These families, headed by the men, might have been working the land for many decades, if not centuries. Resistance to change, and in particular to book learning, was strong among this group. The main body of the village would comprise farm labourers and their families, who again might have been living in the village and serving the big house for generations. Some villages had a doctor and he, as a man of learning with knowledge of science, was held in high regard. The vicar or priest was accorded equal respect. A few villages could boast an artist or two but they were generally on the periphery of village life and not part of the hierarchy.

HOME FIRES echoes this picture of English rural life at the outbreak of the Second World War. Joyce Cameron is the wife of the wealthiest man in the village, even though we barely get to see Douglas Cameron in the series. I have always imagined him as owning farms and land in the in the area around Great Paxford. Joyce could best be described as old school middle-class in that she was born into the privilege rather than earning her way into it as the other middle class character, Frances Barden, would have to have done. Frances and Peter, a wealthy factory owner, are both university educated and belong to the new middle class that, frankly, appalled Douglas and Joyce Cameron. Their household, with Cookie and Thumbs – the cook and gardener – and Claire Hillman, the housemaid, represents a fairly typical well-to-do family of the era. Had the Bardens had children, there would have been a nanny and quite possibly a nursery nurse. That is the sum total of the middle-class characters in Home Fires and they dominate the drama in the early episodes, in keeping with the mores of the time.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured : FRANCESCA ANNIS as Joyce Cameron. Photographer: STUART WOOD This image is the copyright of ITV and must be credited. The images are for one use only and to be used in relation to Home Firs, any further charge could incur a fee.

Joyce Cameron (Francesca Annis) Photographer: STUART WOOD 
copyright ITV

For the women in Great Paxford the arrival of the Women’s Institute, probably in the early nineteen twenties, did more for their social mobility and education than anything else. It gave them a reason to meet up and discuss any number of topics regardless of their social background. When the WI was set up in Wales 1915 it was modelled on the Canadian model of a safe meeting place for women to expand their horizons, share experiences, learn and try new things and, above all, it was meant for every woman, whatever her personal circumstance. From the word go there was to be no bar for anyone joining the WI. Church and Chapel, Conservative and Labour, upper and working class, gay and straight – everyone was welcome. This did not always succeed, especially if a village were hide-bound by ancient traditions and divisions. But the first two episodes of HOME FIRES shows how that could be and was broken with a change of leadership. Under the guidance of Frances Barden the Great Paxford Women’s Institute opens its doors to a wider spread of women from the village and welcomes incomers.

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Little Stan (Brian Fletcher), Steph Farrow (Clare Calbraith), Stan (Chris Coghill) doing the ‘Farrow Frown’ © Julie Summers 2015

Their first recruit from the village is Steph Farrow, a tenant farmer who runs her herd of a dozen cows with her son Little Stan. It is possible that her farm is owned by Douglas Cameron, although that has never been mentioned. Certainly it does not belong to the Farrows. Her husband, Stan, goes off to war leaving Steph in charge and she soon gets into difficulty with the Ministry of Agriculture when she finds it impossible to keep up with her paperwork. We realise that she can neither read nor write. Illiteracy among women born before the First World War was high and it was something that the Women’s Institute was keen to address. Education was, and remains, the keystone of the movement and it gives the WI its present charitable status. Thus it is entirely in character that Steph is taught to read and write by a fellow WI member, Teresa Fenchurch, the teacher from Liverpool.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENT HOME FIRES EPISODE 5 Pictured: LEANNE BEST as Teresa. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation the HOME FIRES on ITV.

Teresa Fenchurch (Leanne Best)
copyright ITV

Teresa is a breath of fresh air in Great Paxford. Coming straight from a poor area of the city she has experience of all types of families and children. She is no doubt the first in her family to be educated to teacher level and the passion with which she encourages the children to learn to read and write is something new in the village. She understands how education can change lives and open doors for children who, in the past, would have had to follow their parents into farming or service. Her past liaison with Connie, a fellow teacher from Liverpool, is the key reason she had to leave the city and she hopes to put it behind her. She is typical of the kind of woman who came from the city to the countryside during the war, though many of the teachers who ended up in village schools were there because of the evacuation of school children rather than by choice. This chimed with many viewers who remember their parents talking about the quality of teachers coming from the cities into the countryside during the war and raising the standard and ambition of local teaching.

Teresa’s landlady, Alison Scotlock, has her own secret that she is keen to hide. Although ostensibly a respectable working woman trained as a book-keeper, she is not legitimately Mrs Scotlock. She and George were not married as he was unable to obtain a divorce from his first wife. Had this become widely know in Great Paxford she might have found it difficult to stay. She therefore lives dangerously close to the edge of society and her entanglement with the world of crime is born out of necessity. Her friendship with Teresa is understandable: They each learn the other’s secret and agree, in an unspoken understanding, to keep it.

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The Revd Adam Collingbourne (Mark Bonnar) and Sarah (Ruth Gemmell) copyright ITV

Dr Will Campbell, as a professional, is held in high regard as is Adam Collingbourne, the vicar and their wives enjoy status because of their husbands’ professional roles. Erica and Sarah soon evolve as powerful characters in their own right and we see the world through their eyes rather than that of their husbands. The novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, the daughter of a vicar, wrote that the dilemma for vicars was they had to live a middle-class lifestyle on a working-class salary. That is hinted at in Home Fires because Sarah has no help in the vicarage and is happy to take in a lodger at the outbreak of war. Erica Campbell helps to bolster the family’s income working as the practice pharmacist, something that is especially helpful during series two when the family fortunes are affected by Laura’s affair with her boss.

HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured: CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam Brindsley, DANIEL RYAN as Bryn Brindsley and WILL ATTENBOROUGH as David Brindsley. Photographer: STUART WOOD This image is the copyright of ITV and must be credited. The images are for one use only and to be used in relation to Home Firs, any further charge could incur a fee.

Bryn Brindsley (Daniel Ryan) Miriam (Claire Price) and David (Will Attenborough)
Photographer: Stuart Wood
copyright ITV

Bryn the Butcher is from North Wales, probably the son of a butcher or a farmer, and his wife, Miriam, hails from the same sort of background. The butcher’s place in the village, like that of the greengrocer, garage owner and postman, was such that they would have addressed most of their customers as Mr or Mrs so-and-so. They belong to the artisan class as defined by Mass Observation. Bryn probably encouraged Miriam to join the WI in order to make friends with other women in the village and to help to break through the class barriers.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured : CLAIRE RUSHBROOK as Pat Simms and MARK BAZELEY as Bob Simms. Photographer: STUART WOOD This image is the copyright of ITV and must be credited. The images are for one use only and to be used in relation to Home Firs, any further charge could incur a fee.

Bob Simms (Mark Bazeley) and Pat (Claire Rushrbook)
Photographer: Stuart Wood
copyright ITV

Bob Simms and his long-suffering wife, Pat, represent the dark side of village life in the nineteen thirties. Bob is a frustrated writer. His first novel was a runaway success but he has failed to match that with any subsequent writing. Pat lives to service Bob’s writing life. The domestic abuse she suffers at Bob’s hands is not unusual for that era – nor sadly for today – and the secrecy that surrounds it plays to the conspiracy of silence that is prevalent in abusive households. Whether she and Bob were ever able to consider themselves middle-class is a moot point. From the perspective of where we first meet them in Home Fires they have definitely slipped down the ladder to surviving on a working class income with Bob getting jobs where he can. He is too proud to admit that Pat could help out by working but eventually she prevails and we celebrate her tiny bit of freedom from the tyranny of their domestic life.

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Wing Commander Lucas (Mark Umbers) photographed in September 2015

Other characters who are introduced into the drama in uniform join that mysterious ‘class’ that was, by its nature, classless. Some 15 million men and women were entitled to wear uniform over the course of the Second World War. Some were in the armed services but others were in organisations such as Air Raid Precautions, Home Guard, Women’s Voluntary Service or the Women’s Land Army. Women were called in to take over roles that were traditionally the preserve of men. They worked as tram and bus conductors, they stripped engines of all sizes, from locomotives to lorries; they worked in factories making uniform, parachutes, helmets or munitions, camouflage nets and vehicles. All these people belonged to a special caste that changed with their clothes. Zelma Katin was a tram conductor in Sheffield during the day and a housewife by night. She wrote: ‘The Englishman’s inhibitions vanish before the sight of a uniform and he speaks far more readily to conductresses than to fellow-passengers. I suppose he feels that as we are public servants he has a stake in our personal lives.’ Jenny Hillman, the village gossip, takes on a whole new persona when she joins the WAAF in series two while our admiration for Wing Commander Nick Lucas cutting a dashing figure in his blue uniform is such that we never even question what his background might be.

The young people in the drama – Will and Erica’s girls Kate and Laura; David Brindsley, the butcher’s son; Claire Hillman and Spencer Wilson, housemaid to the Bardens and postman respectively are all less inhibited by their backgrounds and point forward to the social mobility and class upheaval that grew out of the Second World War.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: ALEXANDRE WILLAUME as Marek. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation to HOME FIRES SERIES 2.

Captain Marek Novotny of the Czech Army (Alexandre Willaume)
copyright ITV

And then we have the foreigners who appear in the second series. There is Mrs Esposito, an Italian who has lived in the village for twenty years. She is rounded up and arrested as an enemy alien along with 19,000 of her fellow countrymen on Churchill’s orders but not before we witness the shocking verbal abuse of her by the local children. They run behind her shouting ‘Wop Wop’. Meanwhile, 4,000 Czechoslovak soldiers arrive in Cholmondeley Castle in June 1940 and as Great Paxford is just down the road from there we get to see them in the second series. The Czechs fought with great distinction alongside the Allies in the Battle of Britain, D-Day, Arnhem and many other battles besides. They, along with the Poles, who were at this stage not in Cheshire (though they turned up later in the war) were among the huge number of servicemen from all over who fought alongside the Allies.

Had we been allowed to continue with Home Fires the face of Great Paxford would have changed, as did the face of rural Britain, as wave upon wave of incomers changed life in the countryside forever. This culminated in 3 million American GIs which included 130,000 black soldiers, a battalion of whom were housed in Tattenhall, just a few miles down the road from Great Paxford. Sadly that honour has been denied us and I deeply regret that we were never able to tell the whole story.

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Paxford is mentioned in this magnificent tapestry from 1596 hanging today in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It is part of our history…

I think one of the reasons why HOME FIRES resonates so strongly with its audience is precisely because it is not a one dimensional middle-class drama. The history is so interwoven with the stories that it represents a snap shot of real-life seventy five years ago. The men and women whose lives we see created on screen in the brilliant scripts by Simon Block are in our DNA. Their lives and experiences have echoes in our own past. Their joy and pain, their losses and gains, are universal and familiar. They are in our parents, grandparents, great aunts and uncles. The world is one we can recognize and I am only sorry that the powers that be could not see how relevant and important that was, and remains, to many people who love the series.

The Trouble with The Poppy

RANCOURT CEMETERY AND POPPIES, SOMME, FRANCE.EUROPE. THE WW1-1914-1918 CEMETERIES AND MEMORIALS MAINTAINED BY THE COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION. COPYRIGHT PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN HARRIS © 2006 0044(0)7808-579804-brianharrisphoto@ntlworld.com OR brian@brianharrisphotographer.co.uk

Rancourt Cemetery and Poppies, Somme © Brian Harris

I have been deeply frustrated and saddened by the, to me, farcical discussions between FIFA and the Football Association about the wearing of a poppy on a black armband on Armistice Day. Frankly no one has taken the trouble to look at the facts behind the poppy as a symbol of remembrance so here is a brief history lesson in the whole subject.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was set up in May 1917 to commemorate, in perpetuity, the fallen of the Great War. It was needed because the repatriation of remains was impossible given the colossal numbers of the dead and cemeteries had sprung up all over France, Belgium and further afield on Gallipoli, in Greece, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt. Over 1,100,000 men from the United Kingdom and the British Empire died in the First World War and are commemorated by the CWGC in cemeteries and memorials all over the world. A further 800,000 came under their care after the Second World War. The numbers of dead from other countries in the Great War were even higher. France lost over two million, Germany over four million… It was death on a scale hitherto unimagined. The CWGC has from the very outset made no differentiation in its cemeteries and memorials between race, caste, creed or rank. The officers in all but the earliest cemeteries are buried alongside the men in equality. The headstones are marked with the symbol of the buried man or woman’s religion and if there was no religion then the headstone has no symbol. There would be no bar to any soldier, sailor or airman who died in the service of his or her country in the First, and later the Second World War, to CWGC commemoration.

Kirkee War Cemetery, Poona, India © Brian Harris

Along with the desire in Britain to commemorate the dead was an equal desire, post-war, to form some sort of ceremony. On the 11th November 1920 the first Remembrance Service took place in London. The occasion was to mark the return from the battlefields of the mortal remains of the Unknown Soldier who would be buried in Westminster Abbey in soil brought back from France. 2,000 people attended the service, the elements of which had quickly to be put together in a form that would be as equal in its regard for colour, creed and rank as the CWGC is in its memorials.

The two minute silence had been proposed in November 1919 and was ordered by the King to be held on 11th November 1919 at 11 o’clock. The Manchester Guardian described the scene:

The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect. The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition. Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of ‘attention’. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still … The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain … And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.

The two minute silence is now a part of all Remembrance Day Services.

The poem, For the Fallen, by Lawrence Binyon, was written in 1914 in a reaction to the horrific high casualty numbers of the British Expeditionary Force. For the record, Binyon could not fight as he was too old but he volunteered at a British hospital for French soldiers. The poem was adopted as part of the Remembrance Day Service in 1920 and has been used ever since. The haunting second stanza has been claimed as a tribute to all casualties of war.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

 

The bugle call, Last Post, sounded at every Remembrance Day Service, is a military call that dates from the 17th century. It appears to have originated from British troops stationed in the Netherlands which drew on an old Dutch custom called taptoe from which we now have the expression Military Tattoo. But that is an aside. The taptoe signals the end of the day and itself came from the expression in Dutch that meant the beer taps had to be shut. The Dutch phrase is Doe den tap toe which means Close the Tap.

So far, so secular. And now to the poppy, this innocent flower that grows best in freshly turned soil. Poppies flowered in huge numbers all over the battlefields of France and Belgium adding a blast of colour to the decimated landscape torn up and freshly turned by the machines of war and the spades of the grave diggers. ‘There was a great profusion – beautiful it was – of wild flowers – poppies, cornflowers, white camomile and yellow charlock’ wrote Captain Parker, one of the CWGC’s first horticultural officers. In May 1915 a Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, was inspired by the sight of the poppies to write a poem in tribute to a friend who died at Ypres. In Flanders Fields immortalised the poppies among the graves:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

McCrae’s poem was published that year and it inspired an American academic, Moina Michael, to make and sell red silk poppies which were brought to England by a French woman. The Royal British Legion, which was formed in 1921, ordered 9 million of these poppies to sell on the 11 November of that year. They sold out almost immediately and raised over £106,000 or £28,000,000 in 2016. The money was used to help veterans with employment and housing. The following year ex-servicemen were employed to make poppies and the tradition has continued ever since.

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Wild flowers on the graves at Couin burial ground before the cemetery was taken over by the CWGC

There is nothing religious about any aspect of the core of the Remembrance Day Service, nor is there anything political about it. If you take the trouble to watch the service at the Cenotaph on Sunday 13 November you will see that the poppy laying, the poem and Last Post are a self-contained mini-ceremony before the religious prayers and the military parade.

So please, when you next hear bleating about the poppy being a religious or political symbol, just recall that it is, like the Commonwealth War Graves Commission itself, neutral. It represents remembrance of everyone who dies in war regardless of rank, creed, colour or caste. Like the lark in McCrae’s poem, the poppy is ‘above’ the noise of the guns below.

THIEPVAL MEMORIAL, SOMME, FRANCE. 11/02 COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION COPYRIGHT OWNED PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN HARRIS 0044 (0) 7808-579804 NO UNAUTHORISED USE WITHOUT PERMISSION

Poppies at Thiepval Memorial, Somme © Brian Harris