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.

Clearing the First Hurdle

My very messy desk and one patient dog, Tiggy, who sits in her wine box behind the desk day in, day out, while I’m writing

Well, as promised in my last blog, here I am on 4 April 2019 with the first draft of Audrey under my belt. I kept a note of the daily word count to prove to myself that I was making progress so I thought I would be brave and publish it here. It shows, to me at least, the days when I struggled to get into the writing mode and other days when things went fluently. That is the nature of writing non-fiction in my experience: I get onto a roll and power through a segment, as I did on 19 February or get stuck up a blind alley as shown by the dismal figures on 4 March.

Do these figures actually tell me anything about my writing? To some extent they do. On 19 February I wrote the last half of chapter seven which covers the breathtakingly exciting period in Audrey’s editorship when Lee Miller was covering the battle of St Malo and the liberation of Paris. My diary entry from that day reads: ‘After gym spent all day writing 5384 words on Lee in France. All good stuff but utterly exhausting. Off to plan skiing clothes.’ Not very informative but the truth is that writing is exciting in my head but boring for the rest of my family. When I am locked up in my office for eight hours, I am hors combat to all and when I emerge my brain is so fried that I am not very good company. For what it is worth, I had returned from skiing on the first weekend in March so the reason for a small word count on the first Monday was not that I was stuck but that I had to spend the morning doing admin.

What next? I have 102,821 words in a draft and now the process of editing begins. For me this is the most exciting and creative part of writing non-fiction. I get to read the book for the first time as I almost never re-read anything while I’m completing the first draft. It is also a time of truth. The raw writing is full of repetition, facts that need cross-checking and an unhealthy number of adverbs. I could probably cut 1,000 words just by removing those unnecessary fillers which I know I put in to emphasise emotion or action but which add little to the work. So those will come out in the first edit, as will padding which inevitably creeps in when I am not entirely sure of myself, especially when dealing with family emotion. How do I know, for example, how Audrey felt at her father’s funeral? I do not know but I have to make an educated guess based on her relationship with him shown through her letters and her thoughts in her autobiography

Ah, the autobiography. Now there is a book I have had trouble with. Audrey published her autobiography in 1994 at the age of eighty-nine. She devoted less than half of it to her years at Vogue and a portion of the later chapters deal with her father’s correspondents and his art collection. In fact, that book is more interesting for what she leaves out than for what she includes. It is a prime example of her desire to cover the traces of her personal life. There is, for instance, no mention of any of her friends by name. Not a single one. But I know from her letters that she had many friends and was popular with her own age group and people of her father’s generation as well. The dramatis personae in her version of her life are her immediate family, her two husbands and about eight colleagues at Vogue.

My favourite example of Audrey taking control of her own story are the couple of sentences that she devotes to her first wedding. ‘Our friends had assumed that Jock and I would marry, and one day we did. From my parents’ point of view it must have been an unsatisfactory affair, to a man they had never taken to, and not in church but at a registry office.’ Hm. Not a very promising start to married life a reader might conclude. But Audrey was writing with hindsight and a divorce behind her. Through Percy Withers’ letters at Somerville College and Harry Yoxall’s diaries it is possible to build a richer and clearer picture of her nuptials. Far from disapproving of Jock, her parents accepted him readily and Percy wrote to one of his friends to say how pleased he was that Audrey was marrying at last. There was a huge party the night before the wedding, which took place on 2 September 1933 (thank you Somerville College archives), and a reception at the Savile Club in London which was attended by about 100 guests. It is true they got married in a registry office but that would not have bothered Percy Withers as he was an atheist. Mary Withers did have a religious bent but she bowed to her husband’s persuasion, as she did on so many other things… but that is another story. So, you see how I’ve had to read between the lines and take Audrey’s own record of her life with a large pinch of salt. A whole bucket load, in fact.

I interviewed Pam Makin who worked for Audrey from 1949 to 1952 and who spoke to me about her energy, passion and sense of humour.

One of the myths that has grown up around her is that of the intelligent but austere blue-stocking. A headmistress-type with little emotion but great strength of character. It is true that she was intelligent, formidably so according to some colleagues, and it is true that she could be headmistress-like at work, but what that hides is her true personality. She was kind and generous, giving every member of staff at the office a personal and carefully chosen Christmas present every year. She was ‘one of the quietest listeners now living’ according to her friend, the artist Paul Nash, while Maur Griggs, an older friend, wrote of the gleams of friendly fun in her eyes. Later in her life she showed her passion when she described her happiness in the early months of her second marriage. Those letters to Edna Woolman Chase (editor-in-chief of Vogue), carefully preserved in the magical archives of Condé Nast in New York, were a revelation in their honesty, sheer delight and surprise at finding herself so happy. Audrey was not austere but passionate, fun, adventurous, impetuous at times. She adored foreign travel and wild swimming, she wrote poetry and went to concerts and the theatre as often as her work would allow. And she loved cats. She described herself once as being like a soda stream, fizzing with pleasure. That is the Audrey who is beginning to appear in my work.

My next three months will be taken up with beating the book into shape, teasing out the development of Audrey’s personality over the decades and planting her firmly, enthusiasm and all, in her life’s work as editor of Vogue. Appropriately, as Audrey loved America, I will be posting my next update on 4 July, the day before I fly to Boston for my son’s wedding. How about that for a neat circle?