The Cost of War

Soldiers in Wrexham

Today is Friday 8 May 2020, the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Seventy-five years ago today the costliest war in history was finally drawing to a close, though its end would not come until 15 August 1945 when the Japanese Imperial Army surrendered unconditionally. Costliest in terms of lives – historians estimate 60 million men, women and children, military and civilian, lost their lives. A generation of children had grown up knowing nothing but war as the backdrop to their lives. In Britain, those children at least had more or less enough to eat. In Nazi-occupied Europe whole families were starving while further afield the famine in Bengal cost the lives of 3 million people. Costliest in terms of economic damage – Britain was almost bankrupt as a result of the war. And costliest in terms of its impact on society. Hitler had boasted the German Reich would last for 1,000 years. It went on for 12 long, destructive years but the impact of it has lasted for eight decades and it will go on for many more.

Soldiers from Jamaica

Today we have been celebrating and commemorating those brave men and women who fought for Britain abroad and on the Home Front. We have heard extraordinary stories from veterans, like the Jamaican, Alan Wilmot who flew with air-sea rescue, saving up to 17,000 lives, or Donald Hunter who sailed with the Merchant Navy from the age of 16. There have been tributes from people who were children at the end of the war. Everyone spoke with warmth of their memories of that special day, but few mentioned what had happened after VE Day was over.

The morning of 9th May 1945 was another bank holiday. Britain woke up with a national hangover and probably a few sore heads too. Barbara Cartland, then 44 years of age, summed up the feelings of many of her generation:

‘We were glad, but still our hearts refused to sing, the shadow of war still lay over us in a restriction of freedom, in controls and coupons. We had only to look at our empty larders, empty store cupboards and half empty coal cellars to know war had not receded very far from our daily lives. To practically everyone in Great Britain the war had brought the loss of someone they loved – either man, woman or child – and for many there were crippled bodies or blinded eyes as a legacy from the nights of terror and fire.’

Barbara Cartland The Years of Opportunity 1939-1945
Dame Barbara Cartland in ATS uniform, c. 1942

Twelve years ago I wrote a book called Stranger in the House that looked at the impact of returning servicemen and women on life at home. It was at times a heart-breaking book to research and I wrote several of the stories weeping onto my keyboard. I know that it affects readers too: my friend John wrote to me only this week to say that he has never cried so many times over a book as over that one. Am I sorry? No, not really. These are human stories that needed to be told. We have to understand the cost of war. It is not possible to gloss over the inconvenient truths, the ugly aspect of readjusting to life after war and to imagine that all the veterans are great heroes who shrugged off the impact of what they did and saw. They did not. They could not. Some will never be able to stop the memories coming back. And that applies to young men and women who in the more recent past have taken up arms on behalf of Britain in conflicts all over the world. They cannot be unaffected by what they witness.

At the moment I am writing a book for the Royal British Legion’s centenary in 2021. Once again, I am reminded of the enormous cost of war and the extraordinary efforts that people go to in order to try and alleviate the pain and distress returning service personnel and their families suffer. The story of the Legion is the story of our country’s twentieth and now twenty-first century wars and the impact they have had on our society. The Legion helped to shape Remembrance, it is a peaceful, peace loving organisation and it has a most generous welfare programme. It has fought for pensions, disability rights and widows’ allowances for 99 years and it is not going to be giving up any time soon.

As I work through the research I am reminded, daily, of the terrible situations faced by men coming home from the First World War. 2,300,000 ex-service personnel returned injured or disabled to a Britain that was suffering from an economic decline, that did not have the jobs, housing or welfare for them. The Legion had an enormous job on its hands to help those affected by the war, including hundreds of thousands of widows, orphaned children, the sick, disabled and unemployed. But it set about the task with impressive energy and focus. The Legion changed many things over the first twenty years of its existence and one of those was the way returning men were treated. By 1945 there was a better, more humane system in place. But even they cannot make the nightmares, the feelings of dislocation and the difficulties of settling down as a family go away. That has, eventually, to come from the individuals and their families.

In my most recent book, Dressed for War, the emphasis was on Audrey Withers’ life and on her energy and courage during the darkest days of the 1940s. Yet even in that book there is a major casualty of war. Her star photojournalist, the brilliant, brave and tireless Lee Miller, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder in the post-war era. She never really recovered her equilibrium. She was one of thousands who suffered, many silently, from the impact of their wartime experiences.

So, without wanting to throw a bucket of cold water on the celebrations around VE 75, I just think it is worth remembering that war has a far-reaching impact on everyone involved.

Hidden Secrets

Poppies of Remembrance at the Thiepval Memorial, Somme © Brian Harris

The build up to Remembrance Day always reminds me of the importance of memories. I’m talking here about national memories as much as personal ones. Two organisations most closely connected in the public’s imagination to memories in this context are the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who I worked for part-time from 2005 to 2015 and the Royal British Legion, who I will be working for from now until 2021. Both these great bodies focus a significant part of their work on remembering the individual servicemen and women who died in the service of their country. They do much else besides but both have outstanding archives that tell the story of the organisation and the people involved in them.

Menin Gate, Ypres, where over 54,000 names of the missing are recorded © Brian Harris

Having spent all my working life using archives I thought it would be a moment to reflect on the importance of archives and their role in preserving the nation’s memories, the world’s memories in some cases. If I asked anyone to name, say, three archives that would be places to consult when writing about the Second World War they would probably come up with Imperial War Museums, National Archives and the National Army Museum. You might not expect to find anything relevant to that topic in the archives of, for example, Barings Bank or Burberry or even the Met Office. But let me assure you that you can find material in the most unexpected places.

I am a regular visitor to the national collections such as Imperial War Museums and the National Archives but I also enjoy visiting the smaller archives that focus on one single issue, such as the Alpine Club or the Henry Moore Foundation. I did a quick calculation and jotted down the names of 38 archives I have visited in the last few years and I do not think that is close to the total I have consulted one way or another over the course of my working life.

It is hard to have a favourite because all archives are wonderful in their own right but one stands out for me as an experience I will never forget. I was writing The Colonel of Tamarkan, the biography of my grandfather, Brigadier Sir Philip Toosey, who was the senior British officer at the bridge camp over the river Kwai in Thailand. He spent all his working life at Barings Bank in Liverpool bar a few years in the early 1920s. Fortunately he did not live long enough to see it disgraced and then absorbed by ING in 1995. I wrote to bank in the hope that they might have kept personnel files from the Barings’ days and got a response by return to say that they had and I was welcome to visit. I made an appointment and set off with a spring in my step and a notebook and pencil in my bag.

Phil Toosey in Peru, 1935, on business for Barings

I arrived at an enormous glass and concrete building in the city and felt distinctly out of place among so many dark suits coming and going at great speed. The receptionist phoned through to the archives for me and there soon appeared the archivist himself, dressed in a brown tweed suit and wearing reassuringly thick glasses. He ushered me through the atrium and towards a brown domestic-sized door through which I stepped as if into another world. In fact, it was another world. It was an office full of old-fashioned filing cabinets and shelves bulging with books and folders. I was completely enchanted. The old office had apparently been transplanted lock, stock and barrel into the new building.

Toosey, February 1946, six months after being released from captivity and three months after arriving back in Britain

Sure enough the material was as good as the archive promised it should be. An entire personnel file on Toosey, including a fascinating exchange of a dozen or more letters between his boss, the Liverpool Agent for Barings, Alan Tod, and Evelyn Baring in London. So concerned were they for Toosey’s welfare (read mental health in today’s parlance) that they decided what he needed post-war was perspective with which to begin his new life after three years as a prisoner of the Japanese.

They sent him to South America as a roving ambassador for the firm but really with a view to giving him a chance to find his feet again. It worked and he was forever grateful to Barings. So was I. What a treasure trove and so beautifully preserved. On the surface the file had nothing to do with the history of the bank but in reality it had everything to do with it. The bank was run by men, and a very few women, who were individuals with personal history, characters, foibles and in this case, a war record.

Other archives have been equally valuable and nothing is more thrilling than finding something that even the archivist did not know was there. In the Royal Geographical Society I found a piece of paper slipped into the back of a notebook which had not been unfolded for years. Very carefully the archivist and I took it out and read it. It made us laugh. It was a memo sent from camp 3 to camp 2 on Everest in 1924. Written by Edward Shebbeare, one of the support team, it read: ‘I’ve been out on the glacier for hours looking for Beetham. Either he is lost or he is with you. If the latter, he’s a bugger for not letting me know.’

For that book I also found the now famous trunk in the attic that contained all Sandy Irvine’s correspondence from the trek and the mountain from where he was never to return. There were photographs, sketches of his changes to the oxygen sets and, hauntingly for me, the final letter he wrote to his mother on 26th May 1924. The trunk was in a family attic in North Wales and it was the most significant archive find of my life. Until 2018, that was. But that is still under wraps and will be revealed in February when Dressed for War is published.

So when you think about remembrance, or just national memory, spare a thought for the wonderful archivists up and down the country and all over the world who take care of this precious material. If it had not been for organisations understanding the value of keeping material for the future and for archivists cataloguing, preserving and caring for it, the history of our lives would be greatly impoverished. An archive might be kept under a bed (yes, I’ve seen those) or in a cupboard in a private house. It might be in the corner of an office or in an attic. Material might be stored in cellars, attics, barns, stables or in carefully monitored air-conditioned buildings. It is all important and valuable. How this will be kept in the future in this, our digital age, I do not know. But for now I acknowledge archivists at every level because they deserve our gratitude.

These precious diaries are stored in a family collection