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Memories of the Second World War from the Mass Observation archive

Blitz spirit: air raid damage in Britain during the Second World War © IWM (HU 36220A)

Katherine Howells, a doctoral candidate on the Institute of English Studies and King’s College London Ministry of Information project, A publishing and communications history of the Ministry of Information, 1939–45, reports on what she discovered while researching people’s written thoughts and memories of the Second World War.

A few months ago I spent over 80 hours in The Keep, an archive near Brighton, reading the written thoughts and memories of 235 people on the subject of the Second World War.

This material was collected by the Mass Observation Project, an initiative that originated during the war but was revived in 1981 to record the thoughts and experiences of people in the UK on a variety of topics. The project recruits volunteers to make up a national writing panel. They are sent ‘directives’ which ask them questions about certain topics and then they write responses and send them back in. These anonymous texts make up a fantastic resource for researchers as they cover so many topics including current events.

senate House

Senate House: home to war time news and propaganda

My research focuses on how people remember the Second World War today, and in particular how they remember materials created by the Ministry of Information (left) during the war. This Mass Observation material has been a really useful starting point for me, as I have been able to read people’s accounts of their own memories and thought processes and pick out references they make to the Ministry of Information. I will be presenting the results of this research at this year’s International Association for Media and Communication Research Conference at the University of Leicester.

But beyond the content analysis that I conducted, which focuses closely on the core aims of my research project, there are some more general observations I’d like to explore here. Reading this material has been an amazing experience. It is so fascinating to spend time reading the individual thoughts and feelings of ordinary people, often presented in stream-of-consciousness fashion. Many of the responses flow so naturally, as the writer’s thoughts turn from one specific memory to wider topics and emotions rise and fall and spur them on to the next topic. Some of the stories people share are so moving and others really funny – reading these genuinely did make me laugh, and cry!

Here are just a few things that really struck me while working on the Mass Observation archive:

Mass Observation is a good listener
People share things in their responses that they have never shared with a friend or relative. For some people the Mass Observation project serves as a personal diary, an opportunity they’ve never had before to share emotions, opinions and experiences. No doubt it is the anonymous nature of the project that allows people to feel comfortable opening up in their writing. However, some state that they’ve never been asked or found the right moment to share their stories, and when you read this kind of sentiment from people in their 80s it is particularly sad.

Some of the stories people share are unbelievably sad, and you get the sense in their responses that they are letting out a degree of emotion that they are not often able to. One woman relates her feelings about the death of her boyfriend in the RAF almost 70 years after it happened. Her description is so arresting and poignant that I felt as if I was there.

One man seemed to approach the directive as an opportunity to tell his life story. He was born into severe poverty before the war and had a very hard upbringing, but his life was changed drastically by the war when he joined the RAF and his eyes were opened to the world. His story is exciting, moving and completely riveting. I was thinking as I was reading it that it would make an excellent film. But this document may be the only account of his incredible life and he appreciated the opportunity to put it down in writing.

The grass is always greener during the war
People are never truly happy with their current situation as they can always find things to criticise, so in comparison the past is remembered fondly. This is something which is even more apparent with memories of the Second World War when terms link ‘Blitz Spirit’ are actively employed to describe wartime society. Many people write about the war as having been a time when community spirit was good, people were friendly, the streets were safer and everybody worked hard. Some even slip into proverbial language:

‘During the war you could leave your door unlocked’

It is important to note that many of those with positive reports about wartime society were children during the war. Older respondents usually have a more balanced view. Some writers acknowledge that the war they experienced in childhood was probably a little rose tinted.

‘I think adults were always careful to play down the danger element, which is why my childhood seemed so happy to me.’

Modern life is of course terrible. People cite the ‘crooked ways of politicians and councillors’, ‘childhood obesity’, ‘malnutrition in the poorest climes of Britain’, ‘greediness and materialism’, ‘the greedy, the work-shy, the hangers-on’ as building up to a picture of Britain that is thoroughly rotten in comparison to the good old days of the Second World War. Since these responses were written in 2009, it is notable that MPs’ expenses are commonly mentioned and employed to illustrate the problems in modern society.

Young people are also a target for criticism, in that they are compared with the brave men and women who fought and worked during the Second World War.

‘The youth of today takes that gift of freedom for granted’

‘Sometimes, we old ones who survived the war feel a sort of contempt for the people we’re breeding now.’

And this does not only come from older respondents. The youngest volunteer who responded to this directive, a 16-year-old, wrote that he doesn’t ‘think young people respect or even know the eminence and horrors during war.’

‘It is usually young people that are my age, they do not respect the fallen, the people that gave their lives so willingly to let the children of tomorrow have a chance to grow up in a world where we are not judged or persecuted.’

Don’t leave it too late to talk to relatives
One thing that I found particularly upsetting when reading these responses was the number of times people would express regret that they never asked their older relatives about their experiences in the war.

Those who had parents who were alive during the war often report that it never crossed their mind to ask their parents about the war, or that they thought it was a subject nobody wanted to talk about. For younger respondents who had grandparents who experienced the war, they often explain that by the time they were old enough to take an interest in the war and talk to their grandparents about it, their grandparents were too old or ill, or had passed away.

‘My maternal grandfather flew both bombing and supply missions. Shamefully, I didn’t ask nearly enough about this when I was growing up and by the time I realised that I should do this my grandfather was dead.’

For some, their interest in the Second World War only really developed later in life when it was too late to ask questions to relatives. I relate to this regret and sadness as I also missed the opportunity to ask my grandparents about their experiences during wartime. The Mass Observation responses have made me acutely aware of how common a regret this is, so now I take every opportunity to urge people to talk to their grandparents now if they are able to. The evidence from the older respondents shows that they are often willing to share their stories but they think that their children and grandchildren are not interested. This is a catch 22 that we must overcome.

However, in a few cases, the problem is reversed. One older writer laments his lack of memory of the war since his grandchildren are so interested:

‘In some ways I feel that I am sorry my recollections are few and hazy – my grandchildren want to know more and I can’t help them except by books etc.’

Katherine Howells is a PhD student in the department of digital humanities at King’s College London. She is studying the communications history of the Ministry of Information by analysing the impact of its materials on audiences during and following the Second World War, from their creation to the internet age.

 

This article first appeared on the MOI Digital website.

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